Russia has upset the global geopolitical table with buccaneer force in the past three years, starting with its $15bn bribe offered to Ukraine’s leadership in 2013 to kill off EU trade integration, followed by the 2014 Crimea snatch after Moscow’s cronies in Kyiv were deposed, and then setting East Ukraine in flames as a fresh pawn in its dealings with the West.
Even in such dire circumstances, all sides got used to what Russia might call “the new normal” (a phrase the government initially used to describe the country’s economic adaptation to life with low oil prices and Western sanctions). Ukraine became a focal new geopolitical chessboard, and the Donbas conflict was turned up or down in intensity according to Russia’s needs — or rather the needs of President Vladimir Putin — in other areas of the global game.
But the recent rapid escalation of the conflict in Syria has changed everything. The past year brought an alarming new level of Russian sabre rattling and actual combat operations using its heavier defence spending, and invoking the spectre of military and even nuclear confrontation between the former Cold War adversaries.
Dmitry Kiselyov, Russia’s de facto chief propagandist, went as far as saying in his October 9 television show that US air strikes on Russian-backed Syrian government forces risked triggering a Third World War. “Brutish behaviour towards Russia,” Kiselyov warned, could assume “nuclear dimensions”.
Fuelling the idea, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told Russia's Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper in an interview published on October 14 that, “Today we observe a situation similar to the Cold War in its development stage”, and blamed this on the US goal to “keep hegemony over the world”.
“That’s why the smell of war, which you have described as the Third World War, is felt in the air, but this is not a direct military face-off yet, although it has a military, terrorist and political component. That’s why you are right in feeling that Syria is only part of this war,” Assad told the paper.
Missiles on the move
In a worrying clatter of some particularly hi-tech sabres, the Russian Defence Ministry confirmed its deployment of S-300 air defence systems to Syria, hinting that it would shoot down any US planes that “endangered Russian personnel”. Moscow also sent nuclear-capable Iskander-M cruise missiles to the Russian Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, supposedly for military exercises, but sending an instant wave of alarm through Nato-member countries now in their range, including Poland and the former Soviet Baltic republics.
Unsurprisingly, the reports get prominent play in western media, adding bang for the Kremlin’s buck in the propaganda war. As the Financial Times wrote, “so anxious was Moscow to ensure the West took note [of the Iskander deployment], a defence spokesman said one missile system was deliberately left on a freighter deck so US spy satellites would see it”.
Moreover, as US-Russian cooperation in Syria collapsed in the past two weeks this spilled over into other crucial areas like nuclear disarmament, with Russia pulling out of a key agreement on disposal of weapons-grade plutonium at Putin’s behest, and setting a raft of strident terms for the resurrection of this and other foundering deals and lines of bilateral negotiation.
Amid rising tensions with Russia earlier in the year, the Pentagon proposed quadrupling its defence budget for Europe and sent more forces to the Baltic region. Now Russia says that to resurrect the plutonium deal, the US, among other steps, must reduce Nato’s military presence in Europe to 2000 levels.
Kremlin curve ball
Ex-KGB officer Putin has always had a knack for taking people by surprise, from Mikhail Khodorkovsky to Elton John, and certainly his underlings in the Kremlin and Russian government, for whom, as bne IntelliNews columnist Mark Galeotti notes, “uncertainty is a crucial instrument of Putin’s personal and institutional politics”.
But internationally, he now appears to have thrown his boldest curve ball yet. Not only has the compliant Russian parliament just authorised an unlimited aerial operation in support of the Syrian government under Assad, but Putin appears to no longer care for the risks this carries of his country’s deeper isolation, including possible additional EU/US sanctions.
Instead he seems to be thriving on the entanglement of his Western counterparts with a whole new mesh of barbed threads, from the plutonium reduction deal conditions for the US, to the prospect of another huge wave of Syrian refugees flooding into Europe, although Putin denies this is the aim.
The exodus from the Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan began long before his country acted to “stabilise” the situation in Syria, Putin said on October 12. “Any accusations against Russia for being allegedly responsible for the problem of refugees are absolutely unjustified,” he added. “Our aim is exactly in creating conditions for people to return to their homes.”
Calling the White House
While Russia watchers are as ever unsure of Putin’s next moves, they seem to agree that he is basically tabling a list of concessions he wants from the next US president, who will be elected in November and take office in January.
In an interview with the French TF1 television channel, Putin said Russia is ready to work with any US leader. But the Kremlin chief clearly favours Donald Trump for president, given the Republican candidate’s indication that he’s ready to cut deals with Putin if he comes to power, while his Democrat rival Hillary Clinton is expected to take a much harder line on Russia. “Certainly, it would be better to work with those who want to work with us,” Putin told TF1.
Meanwhile, his other comments in recent days have incorporated some baffling double-speak. As well as claiming a peace initiative in Russia’s military action and the heavy bombing of opposition-held Aleppo, which has been compared with the destruction of the Chechen capital of Grozny in 2000, Putin offered some curious views on the notion of blackmail.
Having made it clear that Russia will hold plutonium disposal and other issues ransom to its shopping list for 2017, he returned to the sanctions issue, saying at the Russia Calling forum held in Moscow on October 12 that, “we should proceed along a path of compromises, and not of pressure and blackmail”.
But although he concedes that the sanctions are hurting Russia — “they do have an effect, I see the primary threat in restrictions in access to technology” — Putin scoffs at the notion that the measures are an effective tool in cowing resource-rich Russia or isolating it internationally.
“As far as isolation is concerned their [Western countries] fuel reserves and engine endurance are not even enough for a ride along our borders,” he said. “What kind of isolation of a country like Russia can ever be possible?” he asked.
Ultimately, neither Putin nor his government are likely to consciously embark on a course of war with the US, although tragic incidents in Syria are very possible. Russian defence spending will actually be reduced in the 2017-2019 budget plan ($15bn next year and $12.7bn annually thereafter), and social spending significantly increased.
Rather, the goal is to use blackmail, or “compromise” at the tip of an Iskander, to implement the old Russian attitude that “if they fear, then they respect”. Then, once enough key foreign policy items have been checked off to Russian public applause, priorities will turn inwards again in preparation for Putin’s re-election in 2018.