‘It’s Official’, headlined venerable US literary magazine The Atlantic on 21 July: ‘Hillary Clinton Is Running Against Vladimir Putin’. Watching the US race for the White House, one could be forgiven for thinking that we are in the grip of a new Cold War. You would not be far wrong. Scrambling to contain the scandal that erupted at the Democratic Party Convention around leaked emails that exposed machinations by the Democratic National Committee to thwart Bernie Sanders’ campaign for presidential nomination, Clinton accused Russia of hacking DNC computers and her rival, Donald Trump, of supporting Putin. Trump countered by urging Russia, ‘if you are listening’, to hack into the former secretary of state’s private email account and retrieve her 30,000 lost emails. ‘The Republican nominee for president, Donald J. Trump’, The Atlantic warned, ‘has chosen this week to unmask himself as a de facto agent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a KGB-trained dictator who seeks to rebuild the Soviet empire by undermining the free nations of Europe, marginalizing NATO, and ending America’s reign as the world’s sole superpower’.
Such seemingly paranoid politics is indicative of what several commentators, not least veteran Russia scholar Stephen Cohen, have deemed a ‘new Cold War’, and in his opinion a more dangerous one than the ‘old’ Cold War because of its unpredictability. American demonisation of Putin’s Russia not only reprises Cold War rhetoric, shorn of its anti-communism, about Moscow’s insidious intentions towards the United States; it also masks the increasing hostility of Washington and its European allies towards Russia, with the potential threat of a hot war.
NATO is at the core of that threat. Meeting in former Warsaw Pact member Poland on 8–9 July, for the first time on East–Central European soil, a summit of the twenty-eight-member alliance identified ‘an arc of insecurity and instability along NATO’s periphery’, fomented by so-called threats from the East. NATO’s final communiqué did not mince words: ‘Russia’s aggressive actions, including provocative military activities in the periphery of NATO territory and its demonstrated willingness to attain political goals by the threat and use of force, are a source of regional instability’.
Such accusations against Russia belie NATO’s insatiable growth and menacing measures. Welcoming its twenty-ninth member, Montenegro, NATO also issued its first joint declaration on security cooperation with the EU, which lacks its own unified military command. The declaration included increased cooperation with non-NATO members Finland and Sweden, thereby underlining European unity despite Brexit. At the same time the centrality of the US role in NATO, a whip for US military hegemony over Europe, was reaffirmed. There can be no doubt that what US President Barack Obama called the ‘most important moment’ for NATO since the end of the Cold War was aimed specifically at Moscow. Obama handed over to NATO control of a US-built missile defence system stretching from Greenland to the Azores. Though the system is ostensibly aimed at ‘rogue states’ such as Iran, Russia fears it is designed to thwart its nuclear missile capacity. Obama also promised to deploy 1000 additional US troops in Poland, one of four new multinational battalions to be deployed in the Baltic states—right up against Russia’s western borders.
The duplicity of NATO is staggering. While declaring ‘The Alliance does not seek confrontation and poses no threat to Russia’, it condemned Russia for its alleged ‘destabilising actions and policies’, among them: the ‘illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea;…violation of sovereign borders by force; the deliberate destabilization of eastern Ukraine;…provocative military activity near NATO borders;…irresponsible and aggressive nuclear rhetoric; and…military intervention…and support for the regime in Syria’.
NATO’s chorus of accusations against Russia fits a long-standing, deep-seated western hostility towards Moscow that actually precedes the anti-communist Cold War. If responsibility for the current upheaval lies anywhere, it is with Washington and Western Europe, and particularly NATO, as it has marched eastward since the demise of the Soviet Union: nine former Warsaw Pact nations and three former Soviet republics have been incorporated into NATO. Who is provoking whom, when ‘NATO territory’ has expanded right up to Russia’s borders? In response, Russia has indeed conducted major military exercises and redeployed forces westward on its own territory—not in Mexico or Canada. But NATO’s Warsaw summit was preceded by a ten-day military exercise in Poland, whose foreign minister had previously charged that ‘Russia is more dangerous than Islamic State’. The largest ‘war games’ in Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War, Anaconda-2016 involved 31,000 troops from twenty-four countries. Russia did not take kindly to these exercises. Nor did the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who warned against NATO ‘sabre-rattling and warmongering’—a rebuke to Washington from a Europe ever mindful of its energy dependency on Russia and of the fact that it would be in the front line in the event of all-out war.
It is in the context of relentless NATO expansion and growing EU economic influence that Russian intervention in Ukraine must be seen. Given the catastrophic Nazi invasion of the former Soviet Union during the Second World War, it is not surprising that Moscow has viewed the eastward march of NATO with alarm, notwithstanding alleged reassurances by then US Secretary of State James A. Baker to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in February 1990 that when Germany was reunited NATO would not be extended ‘one inch eastward’. The prospect of Ukraine, located on Russia’s southern flank, falling into Europe’s and NATO’s orbit is particularly menacing for Moscow.
The moment Ukraine declared independence with the demise of the Soviet Union in December 1991, Kiev made overtures to NATO, initially by joining the then North Atlantic Cooperation Council. A decade on, in May 2002, Ukraine’s second president, Leonid Kuchma, upped the ante by announcing Ukraine’s goal of eventual NATO membership. While maintaining good ties with Moscow, Kuchma simultaneously tried to put Ukraine on a European path. The author of a 2003 book entitled Ukraine Is Not Russia, Kuchma was also the first Ukrainian president to approach the EU with the idea of signing an Association Agreement. But it was Kuchma’s successor, Viktor Yushchenko, president from 2005 to 2010—and beneficiary of the so-called Orange Revolution against the criminally corrupt Kuchma regime in 2004–05—who accelerated Ukraine’s orientation towards NATO and Europe, although the former proved more welcoming than the latter. Ever since, there has been an increasingly earnest tug of war between Russia and the West over Ukraine.
The contest shifted back in Moscow’s favour in 2010 with the election of President Viktor Yanukovych, leader of the Party of Regions, which had particularly strong support in the Russian-speaking, Russian Orthodox regions of Eastern Ukraine, notably Donetsk and Luhansk. Like his predecessors, Yanukovych was autocratic and undoubtedly corrupt, which won him no favour with Europhiles in western Ukraine, particularly after he jailed, for alleged abuse of office, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, prime minister in 2005 and again from 2007 to 2010. A wealthy businesswoman, Tymoshenko was a leader of the ultra-patriotic Fatherland Party and the Orange Revolution, which saw Yanukovych defeated in his rerun for the presidency after the original presidential election results were annulled.
The contest between Moscow and Brussels over Ukraine escalated amid civil disorder in Kiev in 2013. On 21 November 2013 Yanukovych unexpectedly refused to sign an EU Association Agreement that had been in the making ever since 2005, when the EU launched its ‘Eastern Neighbourhood Policy’, a ‘soft power’ initiative intended to woo post-Soviet states traditionally falling within Moscow’s sphere of influence by offering them trade and political benefits. The 2013 Association Agreement would have forced Ukraine to decide between Russia and the EU, nullifying Putin’s offer of a tripartite arrangement that would have allowed Ukraine to maintain its economic ties with Russia. Yanukovych’s retreat reflected the fact that Ukraine’s economy was and remains heavily dependent on Russia, which supplies and subsidises much of its energy and is its largest trading partner. Yanukovych’s volte face triggered the violent Euromaidan protests in the centre of Kiev, which cost the lives of 100 citizens and police, driven by western Ukrainians and politicians who believed their future lay with Western Europe and tacitly spurred on by the United States and the EU. Amid the upheaval, in December 2013 Putin counter-offered $15 billion and reduced gas prices to aid a bankrupt Ukraine, an offer neither the EU nor the United States could or would match in terms of aid, trade or, above all, subsidised energy. For Yanukovych to sign on to the Association Agreement was to sign up for austerity. Particularly concerning for Russia was that the November 2013 EU agreement, advertised as offering access to free trade, in fact included clauses that called for integrating Ukraine into EU defence structures, including cooperation on ‘civilian and military crisis management operations’. This was not membership of NATO, but such clauses undoubtedly opened the door to even closer Ukrainian ties with it. A hostile Ukraine might displace Russia’s Sevastopol Black Sea naval base in Crimea, harbour a US fleet and provide a home to NATO bases—a threat that would prove intolerable for Moscow.
Amid the ongoing bloody and lethal Euromaidan protests against Yanukovych, the United States in particular was keen to strike at Russia by unseating him, with or without the support of its European allies. In February 2014 US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was caught out advising in less than diplomatic language the US ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, to ‘have the UN help glue it [an alternative government] and, you know, Fuck the EU’.
Throughout this bloody upheaval, Moscow kept a discreet, cautious distance from events in Kiev. The critical turning point that triggered a Russian reaction was the ousting of its ally Yanukovych in a veritable coup d’état on 22 February 2014. Twenty-four hours before, Yanukovych had signed a compromise deal with three opposition leaders to hold early presidential elections, to form a national unity government, and to revert to the 2004 constitution, thereby removing some of the president’s powers. The accord was witnessed and co-signed by the German, French and Polish foreign ministers, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Laurent Fabius and Radosław Sikorski. Russian Special Envoy Vladimir Lukin did not sign. However, despite the agreement, thousands still protested in central Kiev, took full control of Kiev’s government district and occupied presidential buildings. Amid this chaos, the parliament voted to oust Yanukovych, who fled to the eastern city of Kharkiv, rightly denouncing the ‘coup’. So too did the Russian ambassador to the EU, who condemned the decision of twenty-eight EU foreign ministers to ignore the accord, thereby legitimising the seizure of power by anti-Russian oppositionists whose interim government included neo-fascists, as Moscow rightly stressed.
It was the installation of a pro-European, viscerally anti-Russian government, with the acquiescence of Europe and the United States, that triggered an uncharacteristic pre-emptive strike by Putin. Within days Russia forcibly occupied, and subsequently annexed, overwhelmingly Russian-speaking Crimea. Undoubtedly a violation of international law, the annexation was ratified on 14 March 2014 by a referendum. Incorporation of Crimea into the Russian Federation thereby secured Russia’s vital Sevastopol Black Sea naval base. Putin’s reputation as a decisive defender of Russian national interests saw his hitherto languishing domestic popularity rocket. The Kiev coup and the Crimean annexation unleashed an independence movement in southeastern Ukraine that soon became an armed conflict as Kiev launched an ‘anti-terrorist operation’ that the UN estimates has so far resulted in 31,000 people killed and wounded, and the displacement of more than a million.
Despite fears that the Crimean annexation was the beginning of Russian expansion into Ukraine, and the expectations of ethnic Russians in southeastern Ukraine that Russia would strongly support their struggle against what they both see as a ‘fascist’ regime in Kiev, Putin has shown no such ambitions. Moscow did not recognise the 11 May 2014 declaration of independence by the so-called ‘People’s Republic of Donetsk’, whose leaders had ignored Putin’s call for them not to hold a referendum on independence. Putin has opted for defensive support for southeastern Ukraine’s ethnic Russians, which has caused some of their leaders to accuse him of ‘cowardice’ and ‘betrayal’. Apart from Russian military manoeuvres on Ukraine’s borders, humanitarian convoys, and respite for displaced war refugees, Putin has only provided enough covert military support to ensure that the independence movement is not defeated and to gain recognition for the ‘special status’ of the southeastern regions. In September 2014, military support from so-called volunteers from Russia (‘little green men’) was decisive in turning a potential rout of ‘People’s Republic’ forces into a successful counter-offensive that threatened to inflict a severe military defeat on Kiev, which was on the brink of economic collapse. The immediate result was the first round of ceasefire negotiations, which neither resolved the underlying issues nor achieved a lasting truce: Minsk I, 5 September 2014.
Despite a series of punishing western sanctions amid falling oil prices, and western accusations (particularly from former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott), without firm evidence, that Russia had been waging war in Eastern Ukraine, including downing Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, with the loss of 298 innocent lives, far from being belligerent, Putin has been accommodating. He quickly moved to recognise the pro-European president of Ukraine, ‘Chocolate King’ Petro Poroshenko, who was elected on 25 May 2014, and urged an end to armed hostilities, although with little success. Kiev continued to prosecute its ‘war on terror’, supported by private Ukrainian, Baltic, Croat and Polish militias, while the separatists, undoubtedly with covert Russian support, fought to defend and extend their tenuous hold on the ethnic-Russian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Nevertheless, Russia—like the major European powers, anxious to avoid an escalating conflict and head off US interference—has been an active participant, together with Ukraine, France and Germany, in the Minsk Accords, I and II, both of which were agreed in the context of imminent Ukrainian military defeat, and possible collapse. Minsk II was due to take effect on 15 February 2015. Minsk II went beyond Minsk I’s failed ceasefire, opening the way for a comprehensive political settlement, including a revised Ukrainian constitution allowing for decentralised ‘special status’ for the rebel-held areas. Eighteen months on, neither of these key objectives has been achieved, with conflict erupting intermittently, and tensions rising in recent times. But Minsk II confirmed Russia’s crucial role in achieving a partial settlement, as both Angela Merkel and François Hollande acknowledged. It was Putin who persuaded the two representatives of the Donetsk and Luhansk ‘Peoples’ Republics’ to accept the compromise of ‘special status’ rather than independence from Ukraine or even unification with the Russian Federation. And Putin affirmed Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, without mentioning Crimea, which Moscow now regards as having returned to the Russian fold, even if NATO does not regard it that way. Minsk II demonstrates that, despite Russia’s simmering tensions with Ukraine and the continuing conflict, and despite Putin’s Russian patriotic rhetoric, his priorities are Russian national security and stability, not the occupation or break-up of Ukraine.
While all may be quieter on the eastern front, in the last nine months the Ukrainian crisis has been overshadowed by the war in Syria. Specifically, Russia’s seemingly successful military intervention in support of Bashar al-Assad has riled Washington, which was caught off guard, as with Crimea. The Syrian war is undoubtedly the most catastrophic conflict of our time: since March 2011, more than a quarter of a million Syrians have been killed and more than a million injured. The Syrian war has created the largest population-displacement crisis globally: 4.8 million refugees have fled Syria, most of them to Turkey and to other Middle Eastern countries, but thousands too have sought refuge in Europe, successfully or otherwise; another 6.5 million people have been displaced within Syria itself.
In September 2015, the Russians waded into this cauldron. In agreement with Syrian President Assad, Putin authorised air and missile strikes against Islamic State strongholds in support of the Syrian military, although Russia has in its sights all the forces that it considers ‘terrorists’. This was the first foreign military intervention by Russian armed forces since the demise of the Soviet Union, following its ill-fated intervention in Afghanistan. Washington immediately responded by accusing Moscow of throwing ‘gasoline on the fire’, arguing that in reality what Moscow meant by ‘terrorists’ was any armed group resisting Assad’s government, including the ‘Free Syrian Army’, which Washington has been supporting.
The human costs of Russian air and missile strikes may well have been high. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights alleges that the Russian military killed 4408 people, including 1733 civilians, between September 2015 and March 2016. Moscow, however, has not admitted to having caused a single civilian death. Whatever the truth of these hard-to-confirm figures, Russia is not alone. Amnesty International has accused the US coalition of directly causing 1500 civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria since August 2014.
Such dreadful figures obscure the issues underlying Russia’s military démarche. Almost from the outset of the Syrian civil war, triggered by Assad’s brutal military repression of popular protests, the United States, in league with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, has been pursuing ‘regime change’ in Damascus. A 31 December 2012 email from then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, leaked by WikiLeaks, advocated assisting ‘the people of Syria’ to ‘overthrow the regime of Bassar Assad…through the threat or use of force’, specifically, ‘as the best way to help Israel deal with Iran’s growing nuclear capability’. Her successor, John Kerry, has often reiterated that there can be no ‘transition’ to peace in Syria without Assad stepping down. But Russia’s political and military interventions have forced the United States to shift its position somewhat.
Russian has a long-standing alliance with the Assad dynasty, a remnant of once close Soviet alliances with some Arab states, notably Iraq and Egypt. Syria gives Russia a presence in the Middle East and the Mediterranean Sea. Since the Arab Spring, Russian aid to Syria has grown, not only to assert its presence but also because Moscow fears that a defeated Syria could become a jihadist base that could strike against Russia, a legacy of its own brutal wars in Chechnya (1994–96 and 1999–2000). The Syrian port of Tartus hosts Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean; Russia has a vital air base in the Syrian city of Latakia. Like Crimea, these are assets that Russia cannot afford to lose, and they give Moscow vital leverage in Damascus. Two years before Moscow’s air and missile strikes against Assad’s opponents, in September 2013 Russia managed to thwart a threat by the Obama administration to unilaterally attack Damascus on the grounds that it was allegedly using chemical weapons against its opponents, including civilians. By skilful diplomacy, Putin essentially defanged Obama by getting Assad to agree to surrender and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons under the auspices of the UN Chemical Weapons Convention. To the chagrin of Assad’s western opponents, his government survived—a portent of things to come.
In September 2015, one year after a US-led coalition began a relatively ineffective air campaign against Islamic State in Syria, Russian fighter-bombers and cruise missiles launched from the Caspian Sea unleashed a barrage that enabled Syrian ground forces to go on the offensive against Islamic State and other armed opponents of the Assad government. The Syrian military made dramatic gains, firstly by recapturing Syria’s third-largest city of Homs in December and then most spectacularly in March 2016 by retaking the ancient city of Palmyra, audaciously celebrated on 5 May by a concert in Palmyra’s Roman Theatre by St Petersburg’s renowned Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra: a symbolic triumph of civilisation over barbarism and a propaganda coup for Russian military prowess over that of its US counterparts.
Russia’s successful military intervention has forced the United States to at least collaborate with it in co-sponsoring UN peace talks and ceasefires, however tenuous, as Syrian forces, backed by Russian air power, are locked in a ferocious fight to recapture the half-starved city of Aleppo. Not surprisingly, Obama blamed the carnage on the Syrian government’s ‘medieval sieges’ and condemned Russia’s ‘direct involvement’, questioning Russia’s ‘commitment to pulling…back from the brink’. But the reality is that Obama has been forced to recognise that only the Assad–Putin coalition has the capacity to defeat Islamic State and similar terrorist movements, many of which the West has been supporting. In these circumstances, regime change in Damascus has been put on hold.
Nevertheless, the world is on the brink of a ‘new Cold War’, shorn of its previous ideological trappings, between Russia and the United States that has real potential to spill over into a hot war. At loggerheads are two states with disparate military and economic reach, capabilities and aspirations. NATO is a lethal instrument of the world’s most powerful military machine, harnessed to a predatory, highly developed capitalist system that brooks no challenges to its hegemony. By comparison with the United States and its European allies, Russia is a middle, languishing economic power, but it is one that maintains a formidable conventional and nuclear military arsenal that renders it capable of confronting NATO. Russia is therefore a major obstacle to the United States dominating the vast Eurasian land mass. Putin’s authoritarian state has milked its recent military successes for all they are worth. Despite all Russia’s economic travails, Putin has never been more popular. But nothing in Putin’s diplomatic and military démarches in the Ukraine or Syria suggests an expansionist Russia or a Russia simply acting to augment its president’s standing. Rather, Putin wants a stable, nation state–based international system regulated by international law and institutions such as the United Nations. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Moscow has essentially adopted a defensive posture against what it rightly sees as a menacing stance by the United States—the world’s only superpower, as Putin recently acknowledged. But an expansionist NATO has been testing Russia’s resolve ever since its 1998 military intervention in Kosovo; it did so again through Georgia in 2008, and it is doing it again over the Ukraine. The danger is that NATO’s sabre-rattling might trigger, accidentally or otherwise, a Russian military response.