Boris Johnson’s suggestion that Britain, the US and other allies are re-examining "military options” in Syria has sharply focused minds on a phenomenon western politicians have spent the last 15 years trying not to think about: post-Soviet Russia’s determined drive to re-establish itself as a major global power and the willingness of its ruthless and tactically astute leader, Vladimir Putin, to employ almost any means, including use of force, to achieve that end.
The foreign secretary’s remarks were condemned by Moscow as an attempt to whip up anti-Russian "hysteria” and were swiftly disowned by a nervous Downing Street. Johnson’s call for demonstrations outside Russia’s London embassy invited similar, retaliatory action against British interests in Moscow. The gaffe underlined his inexperience and lack of judgment.
But on Syria’s plight, and particularly on war crimes allegedly committed during the relentless "pulverising” of Aleppo, Johnson had a point. His comments served to highlight the much bigger strategic, security and diplomatic problem: what to do about Russia.
Military options are indeed being discussed again in Washington, from where Britain usually takes its cue. The key question is no longer how best to remove the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad. It is how to stop the Russian military, Assad’s main backer, which is held responsible, directly or indirectly, for numerous lethal aerial attacks against civilians, hospitals and schools, including last month’s destruction of a UN aid convoy.
So furious was John Kerry, the US secretary of state, at what he saw as Moscow’s deliberate sabotage of the latest Syria ceasefire that he broke off bilateral talks with Moscow. Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN, accused Russia of "barbarism”. But repeating a pattern of behaviour familiar in Ukraine, Georgia and other crises, an unabashed Putin refused to back down. On the contrary, he rapidly upped the ante.
Within days of Kerry’s move and official leaks that the White House was considering cruise missile strikes on Syrian military airstrips, the Russian defence ministry warned that Russia had deployed advanced S-300 and S-400 ground-to-air missiles in Syria. Any US bombing raids would be deemed threatening to Russian military personnel, who would respond accordingly. Moscow also doubled supplies to the Assad regime’s war effort.
Almost simultaneously, Putin scrapped a US-Russia agreement to reprocess excess plutonium to prevent its use in nuclear weapons and two other nuclear cooperation agreements. The deployment of short-range, nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave in eastern Europe bordering Nato members Poland and Lithuania, was confirmed. And, not coincidentally perhaps, massive civil defence exercises were held inside Russia, in apparent preparation for a nuclear war.
Just in case Washington had not understood how serious Russia was, officials also declared Putin was considering reopening military bases in Cuba and Vietnam. It is hard to think of a more defiant, taunting message to the Obama administration than conjuring the spectre of a new Cuban missile crisis.
Demonstrating that Moscow has other strategic partnerships that could be turned against Washington, Russian ships joined military exercises with China around the disputed South China Sea islands. It is also busily building up alliances with emerging powers such as South Africa and India, notably at this weekend’s Brics summit in Goa, while courting traditional American allies such as Turkey and the Philippines.
Sergei Lavrov, Putin’s veteran foreign minister, was blunt. Russia would not be told what to do. Like it or not, it was once again a global force to be reckoned with. "Washington... cannot use the language of force, sanctions and ultimatums with Russia while continuing to selectively cooperate with our country only when it benefits the US,” he said.
Last week, Putin himself took to the airwaves to deliver a similar message. Responding to a formal accusation by the US government that Moscow had launched a cyber warfare-style campaign to "interfere with the US election process”, Putin denied he was trying to help the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump.
"They started this hysteria, saying this [hacking] is in Russia’s interests, but this has nothing to do with Russia’s interests,” Putin said. His government would work with whoever won the election "if, of course, the new US leader wishes to work with our country”.
This latter statement was chilling. Putin was plainly saying that Russia, no longer the post-Communist economic and military basket-case it briefly became under his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, does not need or seek American approval or agreement to take action in its own interests in Syria or anywhere else. If Barack Obama or his successor want to do business in future, then Russia must be treated as a global equal, not as an irritant or a spoiler or mere regional actor.
Such assertions flatly contradict Washington’s preferred narrative, namely that the west "won” the cold war and Russia is no longer a great power. Hence, perhaps, American slowness to come to terms with a changed situation. But the grave implications of unravelling US-Russia relations are slowly sinking in across Europe, as always the nervous pig stuck in the middle. The German magazine Spiegel recently suggested that Syria was the most prominent battlefront in a new global war, more perilous even than the Cold War because the old power structures and rules are no longer in place.
Yet any sort of western consensus over what to do about Russia remains elusive. Opinion is divided in Europe, where many countries are dependent on Russian energy supplies. Germany’s Social Democrats, for example, oppose sanctions on Moscow in addition to those imposed after Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Poland and the Baltic states, threatened by the Kaliningrad deployment and border troop build-ups, demand a more muscular Nato stance. Neutral Finland and Sweden, troubled by Russian air and sea incursions, edge ever closer to the western alliance.
The so-called Minsk group is due to make another attempt to advance a Ukraine settlement. But nobody is optimistic; the situation there is steadily deteriorating. Following the bad-tempered cancellation last week of Putin’s visit to France, EU heads of state are also due to meet on Thursday with Syria-related sanctions against Russia on the agenda. This, too, may prove a non-event.
In Britain, meanwhile, as Johnson splutters impotently and contradicts himself over no-fly zones, the Labour party claims against all known facts that there is some kind of equivalence between Russian and US actions in Syria. If opposition fighters vacate Aleppo (handing victory to Assad), Labour suggests, all will be well. Its script could have been written by the Kremlin.
The challenge presented by Russia is one of the biggest facing the next US president. Some analysts say Putin is taking advantage of Obama’s lame duck status to create "facts on the ground” in Syria. The Russian president is said to anticipate a further deterioration in bilateral relations if Hillary Clinton wins. The two have a history of personal dislike, dating back to Clinton’s time as secretary of state. "She says she sees in him a cold-blooded, self-enriching KGB agent and a bully; he remembers how she appeared to encourage street protests against him in 2011,” said analyst Leonid Bershidsky. Speaking in August, Clinton described Putin as "the grand godfather of this global brand of extreme nationalism” – lumping him with Trump, German anti-immigrant xenophobes and hard-right populists such as France’s Marine Le Pen.
Assuming Trump loses, a Clinton administration has three possible courses of action. One is to acknowledge Putin has a fair case when he argues that the US, the EU and Nato ignored or trampled on Russia’s interests in the post-Soviet era, accept that Crimea is lost and that Assad stays in power for the time being, and focus in future on pragmatic, one-off "transactional” deals where interests coincide.
A second approach is a longer-term variation on the first, containing Russia wherever possible, maintaining or toughening sanctions, and waiting for the departure of Putin and what some economists say will be Russia’s inevitable economic collapse as its oil and gas runs out and international ostracism, corruption and a declining working-age population take their toll. The plan would be to re-set relations (again) with a post-Putin "new Russia”.
The third possibility, and one that seems most likely at this point given Clinton’s policy positions, is that the US will move on to the front foot and purposefully confront Russia directly, not only in Syria but on a number of other areas, backed up by the possible use of military force.
This prospect is fraught with danger, especially since Putin has shown repeatedly that he reacts badly to diktats and threats. When cornered, Putin does not back down. He escalates. He does not have a domestic electorate, critical parliament or independent media scrutiny to worry about. He disdains international opinion and international law. Despite last month’s bust-up, Kerry and Lavrov met again on Saturday to try to agree another Syria ceasefire. But a lasting solution looks as far away as ever. If the past 15 years show anything, it is that Putin, like a marauding Red Army tank, has no reverse gear. Much in the Middle East, Europe and beyond now rides on what an untested Clinton, with an awful lot to prove, decides is the best way forward.
Barack Obama’s decision not to intervene militarily after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons left the door open for Russia. By going to the aid of his long-term ally Assad, Putin saw a chance to expand Russian influence in the Middle East at American expense and secure military bases on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Fighting Islamic State terrorism was a secondary consideration. The US insists Assad must go, but its limited commitment so far means the non-jihadist opposition continues to struggle while civilians bear the brunt of the violence.
Despite the US-orchestrated imposition of international sanctions on Russia, Putin shows no sign of reversing his 2014 annexation of Crimea. Moscow’s not-so-secret support for separatists in eastern Ukraine opposing the pro-western government in Kiev continues unabated, with renewed fighting reported last week. Peace efforts led by Germany in the so-called Minsk group have stalled. Given the US believes it is upholding an important principle of international law, a future Clinton administration is unlikely to recognise Russian-made "facts on
The deployment of Russian nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad, the isolated enclave it controls on Poland’s and Lithuania’s border, is the latest move in a war of nerves along Europe’s eastern flank. The Baltic sea has also become a contested area as Russian submarines and aircraft test western reactions. Nato has beefed up its defences, and Britain has pledged its support. But the uncomfortable question remains: would an American president
go to war to defend Estonia?
The US has formally accused Russia of launching a hacking campaign to disrupt the American presidential electoral process. The suspicion is that Putin, who has been praised by Donald Trump, wants Hillary Clinton defeated and the credibility of the election result put in doubt. Trump has already claimed the poll is fixed against him. Putin denies involvement. But the affair resembles previous cyber attacks on countries that were blamed on government-backed Russian hackers.
The US and Putin’s Russia have clashed repeatedly in the UN Security Council, most recently over Moscow’s veto of a resolution demanding an immediate halt to the bombing of Aleppo. The standoff has raised wider concerns about the effectiveness of the UN system when permanent members appear permanently at odds and its aid convoys are blown up. Russia is accused by the US of ignoring international law and of possible war crimes, and there are moves to refer it to the International Criminal Court.