MOSCOW BLOG: Playground politics in Ukraine and Syria

By bne IntelliNews September 24, 2015

Ben Aris in Moscow -


We learn everything we need to know about how to treat our fellow human beings at school. You are supposed to be polite, share your toys, call the nurse when your schoolmates fall down and graze their knees, and do what the teachers tell you to do.

School rules are the foundation of the liberal values we believe in, encapsulating the ideas of justice and equality of all, even if many of these lessons are forgotten as soon children grow up and go to the office.

But in international relations, governments in the West see themselves more in the role of teachers than students, assuming the authority of setting the rules themselves, confident in the belief that “we know best”.

Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland made this explicit at a recent panel discussion Ukraine’s East and Crimea: Solving the Unsolvable,  by explicitly claiming this role for the US: “Are we, as stewards of this planet, going to support the right of individuals to have a say in how they are governed, to live democratically, to live openly, to live in tolerance."

However, Washington’s self-appointed status of “steward of this planet” rankles emerging market powers, which two decades since the collapse of communism are starting to find their feet economically and politically. While most transition countries would have been happy to accept guidance from the school staff a decade ago, today countries like China and India feel they have grown up enough that they don’t need to be told what to do any more and can make their own decisions. And like any pubescent teenager, countries like Russia can be bullheaded, occasionally irrational, often ignorant and some times downright violent if they don’t get their way.

The trouble today is that many of these countries are now also big and strong and it is increasingly more difficult for the US to impose its version of schoolyard values on other countries at an international level, as it has been doing since comedian Tom Lehrer was singing about “Send the Marines” in the 1950s. 

The same is even more true with regards to Russia. The annexation of Crimea and the obvious military intervention in Donbas make President Vladimir Putin look like the playground bully who doesn’t acknowledge there are any rules in the playground at all. He has shown that he is quite willing to beat the other kids up if they don’t toe his line, in contrast to an incompetent US would-be teacher that is struggling to impose its authority on unruly children.

From the US perspective the student body on the playground is now armed and dangerous and UN-sponsored metal detectors at the entrance are insufficient to impose order.

Yet from the Russian perspective there never were any teachers on the playground in the first place – just another bully, several years older and with a big gang. Now Russia has grown up, it is forming its own EM gang, which has its own sticks and they have begun to vie for supremacy.

And in terms of raw geo-politics it seems to be working. Russia has destabilised eastern Ukraine with impunity and made it clear it can turn that conflict on and off at will. The resulting western sanctions imposed on Russia hurt, but if anything they have only solidified Putin’s resolve and given him a nationalistic excuse to effectively rally the population to his flag.

Now Putin has opened a second front: Syria. Of course, Russian material has been flowing into Syria throughout the conflict there, but what has changed in the last few weeks is that the Kremlin is now openly admitting it.

Satellite images released by IHS Jane’s, a defence-intelligence consultant, on September 22 showed new construction at two Syrian military facilities near the Mediterranean coast that are reportedly used by Russia’s navy. Moscow has also dispatched more than two dozen combat aircraft to Syrian airfields, where Russian surveillance drones have started flying, according to US defence officials. Russia has also sent tanks, air-defence systems, armoured-personnel carriers and has set up enough housing for 2,000 people, US officials have said. The Russian newspaper Kommersant located hundreds of Russian troops in Syria by simply using the geo-tracking on selfies the soldiers were posting on social media.

"These actions could provoke a further escalation of the conflict and lead to the loss of more innocent lives, increasing the flow of refugees and risking a confrontation with the anti-ISIS [Islamic State] coalition operating in Syria," US Secretary of State John Kerry said on September 23.

And that is the point: Putin is threatening to destabilise Syria in the same way he has destabilised Donbas, and can in effect turn this conflict on and off as well – or at least that is his calculation. Certainly the consensus is that Assad’s forces were facing defeat before the Russians intervened.

The Russians think their strategy is working: “I think that now the Americans are much more perceptive to the arguments we have been offering for the past several years," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said. And indeed Kerry seems to have conceded that Assad may be allowed to stay in office – at least temporarily – as part of a resolution to the conflict, something the US had dismissed earlier but which has been a key Russian demand.

“In its latest move [in Syria], Russia has forced the West into a major dilemma. Accepting the Russian position would amount to the tacit approval of a dictator with countless war crimes in its track record and solidify Russia’s foothold in the region. Rejecting it would be tantamount to risking potential confrontations, and may turn out to be a proxy war between the West and Russia, thus serving to elongate the civil war,” Turkish research fellow F. Doruk Ergun of the Girne American University wrote recently in the paper Act of Desperation or Game Changer? Russian Deployments in Syria for the Centre of Economic and Foreign Policy Studies

It could be argued that Russia and the West were already fighting the first proxy war in a new Cold War with Russia in Ukraine, but by extending the front to Syria the scale of the showdown has gone up an order of magnitude.

Ukraine’s war refugees have largely fled to Russia, but with millions of Syrian refugees accumulating on Europe’s borders the Syrian crisis has arrived in Europe in a very visible way and the EU is starting to lose its nerve. At a recent Normandy Format meeting of foreign ministers in Berlin, attended by Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia, it was remarkable that the discussion was mostly about Syria, not Ukraine. Germany has since come out with strong statements that there is “no solution in Syria without Russia’s participation".

It seems that despite the US sanctions and military threats over Ukraine, Washington’s unwillingness to actually go to war with Russia has meant it has effected no change in Russia’s foreign policy. However, because of Putin’s aggressive use of force in first Donbas and now Syria, made possible by the rapid re-arming of the Russian military, Putin has managed to change the debate in the West.

And all this just ahead of his UN speech in New York on September 28, where rather than being forced to defend his actions in Ukraine, Putin will make a case for international cooperation in the fight against terrorism conducted on multi-polar lines. It seems that Putin’s gang is already big enough to make the US-led gang think twice.

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