Russia’s Moment: How Putin Has Seized The Day

In both Ukraine and Syria, the Russian President has exploited the West’s weakness to divide Nato and halt the advance of democracy

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Destabilising alliance: A Russian airstrike hits the Syrian opposition-controlled town of Daret Ezza, near Aleppo, in October 2015 (© Mamun Abu Omar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Islamic State’s attacks in Paris and Beirut, coming only weeks after the downing of a Russian airliner, have made it clear that, rather than simply inspiring lone wolves to attack Europe, IS is conducting direct paramilitary operations throughout the world. None of this should be surprising. It is ten years since the Jordanian journalist Fouad Hussein managed to reveal al-Qaeda’s 20-year grand strategy. Although al-Qaeda split with al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), IS’s precursor, before the US surge, IS appears to be pursuing a worryingly similar strategy albeit with different goals.

The role of terrorism in their strategy is important to note because it is not an end in itself but a means to achieve the greater goal of increasing insecurity and disunity in the West. It is particularly worrying that, after the events in Paris, IS’s strategy appears to be working, ably assisted by rising European anti-Americanism. The fantasy of the Left, expressed by Jeremy Corbyn’s comrades at the Stop the War Coalition, is that the West is to blame for both IS’s attacks and Russian revanchism. This claim was echoed by Sweden’s foreign minister, who linked Palestinian frustration to the attacks. This shows a stunningly undifferentiated view of the Middle East. Unlike al-Qaeda, IS has an apocalyptic ideology driving its strategy. This provides a better framework for understanding its identity than either its interpretation of Islam or indeed its politics. IS is responding to Western policy on the Middle East in instrumental terms: trying to precipitate a battle against the forces of “Rome” which will lead to the destruction of the values IS detests. All of this should have ended the notion that tackling IS is a regional issue of containment.

There is no accommodation that can be made with IS’s particular apocalyptic worldview. IS has successfully opened a third, European front in its desired war with the West and the effects are devastating. The European policy of open borders, already under threat in the wake of unprecedented migration, is fast approaching its end point. It is most telling that France, despite declaring the Paris attacks as an act of war, has not requested an Article 4 consultation from Nato as a step towards invoking Article 5. Article 5 is the cornerstone of the alliance: the notion that an attack on one member will be treated as an attack on all. The political reasoning was made clear two days after the Paris attack when the White House declared that Obama had little appetite for further troop deployment in Syria; Canada is already withdrawing air support. Instead France launched solo, punitive strikes against IS, and invoked Article 42 of the European Union treaties instead of looking to Nato. The EU is not a military alliance and Germany has already suggested it will not provide direct military support.

This leaves Europe and America partitioned, with Nato a hollow deterrent, and has delivered unexpected victories to Russia, IS and European extremism. There is an interesting similarity emerging between Russia and IS’s use of political warfare. Both seek to divide and conquer when it comes to Nato and Europe. At the G20 summit it became clear that Europe’s future is, to a significant extent, in Russian hands and both Obama and Cameron have been forced to enter into an effective bargain with Putin, to get the neccessary militarysupport in targeting IS. European security underpinned by American military power via Nato looks to be near-dead. We are fast sliding towards a post-American world order.

America and Europe appear unable to recognise these trends and to respond to the resurgence of autocracy and populist extremism, both political and religious. Under Obama America has been slowly downgrading her international commitments, fearful of expressing a coherent view of American power. American timidity has been matched by the rise of anti-American populist politics in Europe and the significant Russian expeditionary campaign in Syria, largely underestimated in the West. What most analysts have overlooked is that Russia’s involvement in Syria matters more politically than it does militarily. It serves to exacerbate the tensions within Europe and on both sides of Nato’s transatlantic divide.

Further afield it undermines the international norms that have underpinned 70 years of relative peace. American hesitation in Middle Eastern strategy has been matched by similar confused signals elsewhere. Not only does such haphazard strategy fail to achieve constructive outcomes, the message sent is of shrinking American resolve even if not of capability. Such signals are encouraging rivals and allies alike to develop their own military capabilities or seek alliances elsewhere. In the Middle East this means a de facto Russo-Iranian-Syrian axis, and in Asia smaller powers might be forced to choose between an alliance with China or the kind of nationalist self-defence being pursued by Japan.

These are serious challenges to American hegemony — a hallmark of the relative international peace since the end of the Cold War. In its place the world is slowly returning to the multipolarity that caused so much blood to be shed during the 20th century. A quarter of a century after the end of the Cold War, it seems that the Pax Americana that so many commentators heralded was, as Charles Krauthammer warned at the time, a transitory moment that can already be viewed with nostalgia. We find ourselves confronted by echoes of the long-forgotten past. Russia under Vladimir Putin is more repressive and revanchist than Gorbachev’s Soviet Union. Putin is also actively engaged in funding political dissent within the EU, as it struggles to confront the twin shocks of economic depression and an unprecedented refugee crisis.

As things currently stand, it is Europe that has most to lose. It is also Europe where the response has been most quixotic, partly a function of an ostrich-like approach to Russian revanchism and partly explained by the ambivalence towards the US heightened after the Iraq war. Putin’s adventurism has been dismissed with derision as economically self-destructive and it has been portrayed by the Left as a legitimate response to Nato expansion. Many commentators make the very obvious assertion that Putin has no long-term strategy and that Russia is struggling economically and demographically, but this masks the fact that America and much of Europe face exactly the same problems. Putin is aware that an election year will only compound America’s inward turn, that Europe faces the continuation of the debt crisis, and that winter will exacerbate devastating political differences over the refugee issue.

All of this heightens the strategic significance of Russia’s Syria campaign. Obama has committed to expanding the use of special operations forces in Syria. Yet again this is too little, too late. Obama’s commitment is unlikely to be militarily decisive. Indeed, militarily Putin has neutered America and Europe in the region. The presence of Russia’s sophisticated air defence systems means that the “safe” option of limiting Western involvement to air superiority can no longer be taken for granted and requires Russian acquiescence. This is an astonishing coup for Putin, allowing him to dictate the nature of Western involvement. Indeed, in America’s place, it has become France and the UK’s military guarantor.

Beyond the humanitarian crisis the real ramifications of Syria are not regional but extend much further. In calling for Assad’s removal but doing very little to bring it about, and in failing adequately to respond to IS militarily, the US has created a void that other actors are now clearly filling. This resonates in the region and beyond, exacerbating the perception of declining US influence. Putin is clearly aware of the importance of such messaging. His support for Assad is, among other aims, meant to send a clear signal to other allies about Russian loyalty and resolve. As America becomes less willing to act decisively and the world becomes less stable, Russia’s intervention to save Assad from a similar fate to Gaddafi or Mubarak sends a stark message. Putin communicates his opposing worldview to Europe and America. Where the West sees global instability as the result of authoritarian attempts to cling onto power, Putin sees it as the consequence of the West’s spread of democracy. 

As political theatre Putin’s real focus is not so much Syria or even the wider Middle East but Central Asia, which faces many of the same demographic and economic problems as Europe, not to mention the rise of radical Islam. As these issues intensify for Europe, faced by an unprecedented refugee crisis, Putin is clearly trying to drive a wedge between the EU and Nato partners. His message to both Central Asia and Europe is clear: Look at the consequences of Western intervention. As brutal as Assad or Gaddafi were, their regimes effectively protected the borders of Europe and Central Asia. America cannot and will not provide such protection.

This is a message that Putin must know has some resonance in much of Europe. It is no surprise that America is on the back foot globally, trying to reassure a far more diverse mixture of allies and potential adversaries that it remains a credible ally. John Kerry recently concluded a trip to five Central Asian countries where America is effectively vying for influence with Russia as strategic partner. A failed war with IS, Russian action in Syria and the worsening of the situation in Afghanistan are all diminishing America’s desirability as guarantor of peace and security. The contrast with recent Japanese and Russian investment in Central Asia simply highlighted America’s lack of actual strategy in the region. The problem of credibility is equally as acute in Europe where it is painfully apparent that safeguarding the continent long ago slipped down the list of US vital interests. It is unlikely that recent attempts to shore up Nato and increase US military commitments will reverse this trend.

For Putin, Syria has already achieved a number of different goals. The nature of the military campaign, with the symbolic use of cruise missiles, has clearly been designed to showcase Russia’s expeditionary capability. Short of nuclear weapons, the ability to conduct military operations out of area has become the litmus test of great power status. No European power, including the UK, would be capable of such autonomous power projection and China is still busy developing the ability to do so. Beyond simple prestige Putin has forced Russia into a position of strategic and diplomatic importance, augmenting the role he played in the nuclear negotiations with Iran.

It is likely that Russia’s Syrian strategy will be similar to the one it is pursuing in Ukraine. That is not pursuing stability as Western powers understand it, but securing Russian interests by creating a favourable situation on the ground. Once this has been achieved, military intervention will end and Moscow will pursue a peace proposal to secure the naval base at Tartus (another mirror of Crimea). Russia has shown considerable appetite for the creation of failed states and frozen conflicts that it can restart at will. Limited Franco-British airstrikes, or even troop presence, will not change that. Indeed, this gives significant leverage over Europe in more ways than one. Putin has combined the Syrian war and Europe’s migrant issue, placing Russia and Iran at the heart of any resolution, either military or diplomatic. By wresting control of the military situation in Syria, Putin can cynically control the flow of migrants into Europe and he is more than aware of the political significance of this. Putin may have a weak hand but he has outmanoeuvred America.

History is reasserting itself in another important but equally unexpected way. Both Europe and America are seeing the political consensus challenged by populist politics on the Left and Right. Next year will be pivotal because it will decide what sort of future the transatlantic community chooses for itself.

Britain is no more immune to this populism than the rest of Europe. Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise Labour leadership victory is more than simply a quirk of his party’s byzantine internal politics. He seems to have found a genuine constituency and is proving to be a ruthless force in the reengineering of Labour away from the consensus politics of Tony Blair. Corbyn has tapped into the nihilism and political alienation of the millennial generation. The incoherence and angst of that generation was expressed in the run-up to the 2015 general election by the comedian and would-be anarchist Russell Brand. Corbyn’s vintage socialism is able to exploit a range of discontents, including the hangover of anti-Americanism in the decade after the Iraq war and a reaction to economic austerity, as well as less readily tangible ideas such as the now limited collective memory of the Cold War. Corbyn appeals to a generation that has never known the horror of totalitarianism. It has grown up in an age where moral equivalence is common currency and Western values have been delegitimised through the campus revolutions of the New Left.

It is hard to know if the relative retrenchment of America and the gradual emergence of multipolarity or the rise of populism and the weakening of Europe as a coherent entity are short-term, reversible trends or genuinely mark the start of a new era. The millennial demographic that Corbyn targets does not yet appear significant enough to translate his party leadership into electoral success. But unforeseen events could change the electoral calculus. Even without electoral victory, Corbyn is already having a corrosive effect on British politics. Corbynism is both contradictory and simplistic in its logic. His anti-Americanism involves as crude a Manichean worldview as any he opposes. The assertion that Corbyn could not think of any circumstances in which he would use Britsh troops and his comparison of IS to the US occupation of Iraq are unsophisticated. Like much of Corbyn’s approach, such statements, along with his blanket pacifism, are designed to prevent real debate. It is certainly true that Western military intervention is not always the right option, but sometimes, such as in Sierra Leone or Kosovo, it is. Of course, Corbyn’s support for the Kurds or Yazidis is totally at odds with his opposition to air strikes. As a result, while Obama sends limited troops to Syria, it is by no means clear that David Cameron will convince enough Labour MPs to secure British action.

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee already appears to be regurgitating elements of Corbyn’s logic by suggesting that military engagement would necessarily prevent Britain’s proper pursuit of a diplomatic solution in Syria. The government has done a poor job of countering Corbyn’s instinctive anti-Americanism and incoherent pacifism. There should be a full debate about an effective strategy in Syria but even after the Paris attack it seems unlikely that this will take place in the near future. This is not entirely Corbyn’s fault. The government has failed to articulate a coherent strategy for tackling IS. A campaign based solely on air strikes is clearly not the answer. The uncomfortable truth is that the lack of debate has handed the military initiative to Russia. The only guaranteed outcome of this is that whatever settlement emerges will favour Moscow and Tehran. There are more profound issues at stake that are simply not being articulated. In the wake of Iraq, the issue of foreign intervention has been one that successive governments have been wary of discussing candidly. Given public concern over the refugee crisis it is about time that the cause and effect of this crisis are linked in the public consciousness.

Corbyn’s worldview is significant because it brings hitherto marginal views to the mainstream but also because it shares Putin and IS’s critique of the Western values. Corbyn has been clear that his foreign policy would be one that “understands our role in causing the conflicts of today”. In that sense Russia is already pursuing Corbyn’s foreign policy as Putin’s Syria adventure is partly meant as an exemplum of Western failings. Corbyn is unremarkable or at least he would be, were it not for the fact that his views on Russia’s place in the world are far from alien in Europe. Angela Merkel’s former chief of staff has been deeply critical of Obama for dismissing Russia as a regional power, a view echoed in the German press in October. Nicholas Sarkozy has said that he always considered Russia a “global power, not a regional one”. German foreign minster Frank-Walter Steinmeir went even further, stating the necessity of Russian help in solving international crises. The casual observer could be forgiven for forgetting that Russia is currently subject to EU sanctions. Despite them, Berlin has maintained dialogue with Moscow and made it clear that it is keen to remove the sanctions once the Minsk peace agreements are adhered to. The end point is clear now that Putin has declared France his ally.

The Gerasimov doctrine, Russia’s current strategy, is notable because it has been so effective in the use of political techniques to maximise Russia’s military resources. There is a logic to Russia’s Syria campaign beyond its military limits. Putin has carefully exacerbated existing tensions between the European and Nato partners. It is no coincidence that Russia chose to engage with the “Normandy Format” (with just Germany and France representing Europe) rather than the wider EU over Ukraine.

The long postwar peace and the historically unprecedented stability it brought to Europe might well be drawing to a close. Ironically, the notion of “Europe whole and free”, the goal for the West throughout the Cold War, is now the issue that threatens to tear Europe apart as its constituent states argue over the free movement of people. American inconstancy is matched by the disintegration of the European project — not just the EU but also Nato. More importantly, Western political consensus, underpinned by the common values which have kept the peace and maintained open borders since the end of the Second World War, is threatened by the rise of nationalism. Multilateralism has been replaced by narrow regional bargains — exactly the proposition Putin is encouraging in Europe.