In the 2012 US Presidential Election debates, Obama ridiculed his opponent, Mitt Romney, who had suggested that Russia was America’s greatest geopolitical threat.
“The nineteen eighties are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the cold war has been over for twenty years.”
Just six years and one shocking US presidential election later such comments seem naïve and hubristic. Since that debate, Russia has annexed Crimea, gone to war in all but name in Eastern Ukraine has become the key player in the ongoing civil war in Syria and has been embroiled in a string of accusations of electoral interference in Western countries including the Trump and Brexit campaigns in America and the UK.
Most recently the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, a former Russian spy and his daughter, in the quiet English city of Salisbury has created international condemnation of Russia. Why has the geopolitical landscape changed so much, and so unexpectedly since 2012? There are thousands of considerations in such a complex world, however; Vladimir Putin can undoubtedly be seen as an architect of at least some of the discord the world is currently facing.
Architect of Disorder
Putin, who emerged to power from the shadows of Soviet security agencies, is a man with a vision and with a strategy which is hard to understand. This is what makes it as dangerous as it is challenging to predict Russia’s next move, or plan to counter it. For example, in 2014 Putin made the superficially cosmopolitan and diplomatic move of hosting the Winter Olympics, a sure sign to the international community that Russia was ready to play its part in the established international order. However just months later Crimea was annexed from Ukraine, and Russian forces moved in on Ukraine’s eastern border. The sight of Russian tanks once again on the roll through European steppes resonated deeply with western leaders. America had reduced its military presence to just a few ‘Stryker Brigades’, light motorised troops which are unsuitable for taking on heavy tanks.
NATO, in general, had been focused on non-state threats and closing down its deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. In light of developments in Russia, western nations scrambled to relearn conventional military tactics. NATO has increased its presence in Europe, especially in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. In retaliation Russia organized its ‘ZAPAD” military trials in Belarus, flexing its military muscles along the borders of NATO countries. Russia is happy to show off its military capabilities.
Putin’s Plan in the Middle East
Europe was not the only region where Russia was catching opponents off-guard. In Syria, a pro-Assad Russian intervention has seen Putin become a more dominant player in the Middle East. The friction caused here is a massive point of concern. US and Kurdish forces killed more than 100 Russian mercenaries in February and marked the first time in 50 years that Russian and American forces fought each other directly. For many, Russia succeeded where America did not. It was able to push ISIS back and stabilise the region; however, the appalling humanitarian cost and disregard for civilian lives certainly make such success unpalatable. The reality is that Russia now has more influence in the Middle East than ever since the end of the Cold War. It also seems to be beginning to drive a wedge between America and Turkey, two NATO allies.
Accusations of vote meddling in western countries have been levelled at Russia. These accusations range Russian bots spreading fake news, and propaganda spilling from state-sponsored media outlets to alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. Russia has waged an information war against the west and it appears to be winning.
This strategy of information warfare perhaps comes from one of Putin’s advisors, Vladislav Surkov, who claims to pursue a policy that “destabilises perceptions.” He aims to destroy the narrative, to become a shape-shifter to his opponents so that it is impossible for them to counter-attack. If this sounds vague and wishy-washy look to Crimea. It was impossible for Ukrainian national forces to mount any opposition because they did not know who or what they were fighting against; was it Russian forces? Was it Russian loyalists? Who was legitimate? In the absence of a coherent narrative, Putin was able to consolidate power in the Crimea.
Military thinkers sometimes separate strategy from vision. Vision is the ‘why’ it is what you are aiming for. Strategy is the ‘how’, how will you achieve your aim. Putin has a very clear vision of what he wants; he wants to enhance the power of Russia, maintain it has a ‘super-power’ whilst also protecting and improving the lives of Russians and Russian speakers.
What is not clear is his strategy. He will go from hosting Olympic games one moment to annexing regions the next. This lack of understanding makes combatting Putin like grasping mist; the harder you try to pin him down the more easily he slips through your fingers. Like all dictators, Putin aims to cling to power. To win the support of the Russian people, they need to see him as a strong man. By exerting Russia’s influence on the geopolitical stage, either through soft power or by military intervention, he will succeed in creating the right persona.
The West is not powerless though. By being vigilant, adaptable and resilient western nations will be able to react to Putin. The current lack of international leadership may make this harder to do. Political paralysis and division within western nations make it easy for Putin to take the initiative, allowing him to choose places of confrontation on his terms. The recent poisoning of the Skripals appears to have briefly rallied the West against Russia and this could signal increased defiance against Russia. However, if increased resistance leads to a confrontation between two nuclear superpowers, the situation could become lead to a reversion to Cold War politics.
More on Russia
Dancing with the Tsars
The FIFA World Cup is now well underway in Russia. Missed penalties, late-game screamers, and underdog feel-good stories have already caused...
Freezing Over? – The Future of UK-Russian Relations
Anglo-Russian relations have recently become frosty with the poisoning of the Skripals putting the two governments at loggerheads. Will...
Why Are We so Open to Fake News?
We’ve seen a lot about fake news lately – from the Cambridge Analytica scandal to Donald Trump’s Twitter, everyone is talking...