The current landscape of global politics is a confusing collection of disorder, bloodshed and despair. Since its inception, the EU has achieved one of its primary aims: keeping its member states in check, and preventing any country from developing into a superpower. The result of this: a European super-power vacuum. With waning US foreign policy and NATO’s indecisive actions, is the baton being passed to Putin?
NATO’s lack of decisiveness has enabled Russia to take the initiative and intensify its involvement in Syria in support of the ‘west-waged’ war against the so called Islamic State. A Russian passenger jet blown up by terrorist bombers has given Putin moral authority to carry out decisive aerial bombardments, and he’s grabbed the opportunity with both hands. NATO are reluctant to accept the fact that Russia is now batting for the same team as them. On the surface everything seems constructive, but underneath all of the handshakes and conversations with Obama and Western leaders, what are the real motives of Putin? Is he acting as an ally of Western ‘democracy’ or reigniting the flame of Russian superiority?
Well for starters, the Cold War never ended. Symbolic scenes of the Berlin wall collapsing, might have marked the fall of the Soviet Union, but considerable East-West tension continues unabated. ‘You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea‘. In essence, the fall of the Berlin wall was superficial as much as it only signalled the start of an ideological ceasefire. Well, that ceasefire is now over. The tentative inroads into democracy made by Gorbachev have been systematically undone by Putin. His dealing with the West as of late, while echoing signs of ‘obedience’ and a level of pragmatism, is fundamentally underpinned by a deep-rooted distrust that Russia has never been able to overcome. Equally, NATO’s apprehension to swearing an oath of friendship confirms the extent to which these old hostilities still remain. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ attitude – it’s as prevalent as ever.
Economic or military super-powers?
Unlike normal ‘superpowers’, which are often formed as a result of conflict and domination, the European Union had emerged as a result of peace and cooperation. While it may remain unique as a superpower in that sense, this lack of military pedigree has left it redundant in facing many of the problems that threaten the peace of the continent today. The control of the means of production rather than control of the means of destruction, is something that the European claim to superpower status, is founded on. However, the recent requirement for ‘hard power’ and military means has provided a window of opportunity for Putin to relinquish some form of military superiority and fill the void that the EU has created.
As recent polling suggests, his support in Russia is strong. His tight grip on politics , liberties and a carefully engineered propaganda machine have not only enabled him to serve for 15 years, but also allowed him to rekindle support in the the former Eastern bloc. The strength of his image is something not to be underestimated. Take Ukraine as an example. A country fundamentally divided, in a manner resemblant of postwar-Germany. Centrally, the key division is the enduring affiliation Ukrainians have to Russia. In part, this adopted nationalism is due to the ‘Stalinist’ style image that Putin has created so far, through his stubborn and resilient leadership.
The Ukrainian question in itself had revived old tensions and perhaps signalled a resurgence of Cold war sentiments. While he has been condemned and sanctioned by the West, Putin has continued to defy, slowly but surely establishing a foothold back among the power-players of global politics. Putin’s carefully crafted cult, fortified at home and feared abroad, has given Russia a new sense of legitimacy that has been sorely missed since the heydays of the Communist era.
The ‘Goldilocks’ principle
The cold war never turned ‘hot’ because it was covert and fought via proxy wars. The outcome of direct conflict between Russia and the U.S. would have been mutually destructive for both sides. A zero-sum game. This fear of direct conflict is what largely kept the guns on safety lock and served as the ultimate blockade between rhetoric and conflict. An approach NATO has successfully preserved through times of potential unrest; The Cuban Missile crisis, the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and deployment of nuclear weapons in Western Europe in the 1980s all represented triumphs of inaction and an aversion to direct conflict. Keeping the temperature ‘just right’.
The tangible threat of global terrorism, has signalled the rise of a mutual enemy for both East and West. Something that can only be overcome through complete cooperation and a concrete plan of agreed action. As of yet, this remains to be seen. Why? Because the bipolar relationship between Russia and the U.S. never went away.
Obama’s recent comments regarding the downing of a Russian plane in Turkey only confirm this. His reluctance to remain neutral and instead stir old sentiments, have ensured such feelings are preserved. Putin has taken extra steps to escalate tensions, an act of antagonism to shift the power into Russian hands. This incident is particularly disconcerting as Turkey is a NATO member. If it were to receive a military retaliation of some sorts, then the country would be in a position to ask for assistance from the alliance. Unlikely as this may be, however, it is putting extra pressure on Russia’s fragile relationship with the West, at a time when it needs to be stronger than ever. For years Putin has looked to undermine the unity of NATO and now its been presented to him on a plate. I’m guessing he’s relishing it.
What is currently happening is not cooperation as such, but a form of ‘coopetition’. An involvement of two competing sides, combating one thing, but with different set agendas and motives naturally opposed to one another. Self-preservation being the primary desired outcome. The prize on offer? A firm re-establishment as the global military superpower, a step in the direction of hegemonic dominance. Looking back to the days of the Cold war, the current situation resembles a modern day ‘race’ of sorts. Not ‘space’ or ‘arms’ this time, but a race to mass-destruction. The competition is not judged on development and technological advancement, but by the devastating results achieved and eradication of a mutually perceived ‘enemy’. With the casualty count being far away from both Russian and U.S soil, there is less reluctance to act with brute force. In turn, as the horrendous outcomes will go largely unreported and unverified, less of a mandate is needed at home.
A dangerous game
Bombing a country decimated by civil war should not be a way to decorate your superpower trophy cabinet. For Putin, its time to stop ‘flexing’ and start cooperating. Likewise, NATO need to set aside their differences and engage with Putin to develop some form of collaborative approach, if they are concerned with the most beneficial outcome for all, including that of the Syrian people. Otherwise it seems unavoidable that the the Syrian conflict runs the high risk of sliding into a form of proxy war between NATO and Russia. In any case, the real winners in all this are not Russia or NATO, East or West, but ISIS. Fighting amongst ourselves. That’s what they want, isn’t it?