“Dangerous Games”: Russia-U.S. Tensions Escalate

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In October, Yevgeny Kiselyov, Moscow’s TV propaganda hitman in chief, attacked U.S. policy over Syria, warning his audience that American “impudence” could take on what he called “nuclear dimensions.”  Russian warships were on their way to the Syrian coast, Kiselyov noted, to counter potential U.S. air strikes against the Syrian military.  He pointedly reminded his audience that the warships’ missiles came in “a nuclear version” as well as with conventional warheads.  Kiselyov’s broadcast followed a warning from the Russian Defense Ministry regarding any plans by Washington to launch strikes against Syrian forces: Russian personnel were stationed on Syrian bases, and Russian air-defense systems would defend them.  Meanwhile, civil-defense exercises were held across Russia, and Moscow unveiled a contingency plan that would put local government and regional branches of federal ministries under the military in the event of war.  Russian parliamentarians raised the question of reopening Soviet-era military bases in Vietnam and Cuba, while the Kremlin reportedly “recommended” that state officials bring home their children studying abroad and other relatives living outside Russia.  Western news media asked, “Is Russia preparing for war?”

By mid-October, tensions between Moscow and Washington, which had been escalating for some time over Syria, seemed to reach a breaking point.  Washington wants to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Moscow hopes to maintain an ally in the Middle East.  Russian forces are helping the Syrian army against its armed opposition, while the U.S. supports that opposition.  Both sides claim to be fighting terrorism.  Russian-U.S. military cooperation and a Syrian ceasefire broke down as Syrian forces, with help from Russian air power, fought to seize the strategically important city of Aleppo and break the back of Syrian opposition forces.  The United States, her Western allies, and U.N. officials charged Russia and her Syrian client with creating an “humanitarian catastrophe” in the city by indiscriminately killing civilians, including children, a charge Russian media redirected to Syrian opposition forces.

Against this backdrop, Russian President Vladimir Putin canceled a scheduled trip to Paris.  French President François Hollande had accused Russian and Syrian forces of war crimes, while his foreign minister announced that French prosecutors would ask the International Criminal Court at The Hague to investigate those alleged war crimes.  According to French sources, Putin, who had scheduled the Paris trip for October 19, ostensibly to be at the opening of a Russian cultural center and to attend a Russian art exhibition, pulled out when Hollande refused to discuss anything but Syria at a proposed meeting with his Russian counterpart.  (“I asked myself the question . . . Is it useful?  Is it necessary?  Can it be a way of exerting pressure?  Can we get him to stop what he is doing with the Syrian regime?” M. Hollande said in a televised interview.)

Putin claimed it was the French who had canceled, and Russian analysts began to wonder whether Putin and Russia were now being treated as “rogues” by the West.  Even at the height of the Ukraine crisis, following a street revolution that overthrew a pro-Russian government—a revolution, publicly supported by Western politicians, against a government that those politicians’ governments had recognized as legitimate—and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Putin had frequently spoken by phone to Western leaders in Paris, Berlin, London, and Washington.  Now it appeared that Russia was being treated as a “non grata” country, as political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya put it.  Russian Foreign Secretary Sergey Lavrov was blunt in his assessment of the situation.  He told Russian Channel 1 TV that the basis for U.S. policy was an “aggressive Russophobia,” and that the U.S. was taking steps that threaten Russian security.  Lavrov added that anti-Russian economic sanctions were a manifestation of this hostility.  Regarding Syria, Lavrov said that there are people in Washington who want to move beyond diplomacy to the use of force.  Lavrov also issued his own warning about any possible U.S. bombing of Syrian forces: Cruise-missile strikes against the Syrian air force would be very risky.  The Russian General Staff had already let it be known that the U.S. should expect a reaction.  Lavrov described Washington’s moves as “dangerous games.”

Regarding the desire of some in Washington to move beyond diplomacy, Secretary of State John Kerry inadvertently let the cat out of the bag in a leaked recording of a conversation he had at the United Nations with a group that included anti-Assad Syrians.  Kerry said that “three or four” people in the Obama administration favored using force, but there was a diplomatic problem that would be difficult to finesse: The U.S. had no legal justification for attacking the Assad regime, while Russian forces had been invited in by Damascus.  Kerry lamented to his Syrian friends that there was also an American domestic political problem to consider: “A lot of Americans don’t believe we should be fighting and sending young Americans over to die in another country.”  But Kerry offered some hope for the hawks: “there’s a different conversation taking place,” he said, since the bombing of Aleppo had intensified and talks with Russia had broken down.  On Friday, October 7, the week of the U.N. meeting during which Kerry had his conversation with Syrian oppositionists, he called for an investigation of alleged war crimes committed by Russian and Syrian forces.  It’s not too hard to imagine Secretary Kerry and others using the “war crimes” accusation in justifying U.S. military action in Syria.  And it’s also not difficult to imagine why, with the Aleppo/war-crimes issue being raised by the French president, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton, Moscow has reacted as sharply as it has.  Clinton has also called for a “no-fly zone” in Syria, potentially setting up a direct clash between U.S. and Russian warplanes.

A head-on U.S. military confrontation with a nuclear power that already sees itself boxed in by the West is a real possibility.

The entire Syria “dangerous games” episode requires more explanation: How did Washington and Moscow arrive at a point where a direct military confrontation was conceivable?  Part of the answer lies in the history of U.S.-Russia relations after the fall of the Soviet Union.  Putin has, on numerous occasions, outlined Russian suspicions of the West in general, and of the United States in particular: First, after the Warsaw Pact collapsed, NATO continued expanding eastward toward Russia’s borders; the West, through various NGOs and state-supported organizations such as the (American) National Endowment for Democracy, has supported “color revolutions” in a number of countries, including insurrections on the territory of the former Soviet Union, which Moscow considers its sphere of influence and security zone.  Second, Western money has flowed to opposition groups in Russia, and there is nothing the “non-systemic opposition” in Russia would like better than to replay Kiev’s “Maidan Revolution” on the streets of Moscow.  Third, the deployment of components of the U.S. missile-defense system in Europe was supposedly directed at the potential threat of Iranian nuclear missiles—but Putin has asked why those plans are going ahead after Washington signed on to the Iran nuclear deal.  Fourth, Putin says that the West supported a “coup” against the legitimate, pro-Russian government of Ukraine, a country Russia considers vital to her national security.  The list goes on, but the obvious conclusion is that the U.S.-led NATO coalition intends to dominate Russia, is hostile to Russian interests, and means to see Putin overthrown.

Judging by what Russian analysts say and write, and by comments made by Russian officials, Putin has likely misunderstood the nature of the West’s hostility.  The Kremlin has repeatedly signaled that it is prepared to make a deal based on hard-nosed interests, not ideology.  The deal Moscow wants would look something like this: The West would recognize Crimea as Russian, lift anti-Russian economic sanctions, and pressure Kiev to abide by the Minsk accords regulating the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian rebels have fought against Ukrainian forces.  (Both sides have claimed the other is violating those agreements.)  In return, Moscow would normalize relations with Kiev and cooperate with the West in Syria to target Islamic State jihadists and other terrorist groups.  (Putin has floated the idea of an antiterrorist coalition for some time; because of Russia’s relative proximity to the Middle East and Moscow’s operations against Islamic insurgents on Russia’s own soil, militant Islam is a direct threat to Russian stability.)  Ukraine would pledge not to join NATO (Moscow’s wish list includes Kiev amending its constitution to prevent Ukraine from joining “military blocks”), while the details on Assad’s fate and a Syrian peace settlement—which may involve “moderate” Syrian opposition groups and new elections—are being worked out.

Apart from assisting Assad and asserting Russian influence in the Middle East, Putin’s Syrian gambit was likely intended as a means of pressuring the West, especially the United States, to come to terms on Ukraine and acknowledge Russian interests.  Moscow wants the West to recognize Russia as an equal, a great power that has a say in important international affairs, and to respect Russian sovereignty.

But Moscow’s signals about a realpolitik deal have been disregarded by the West, especially in Washington, which Moscow understandably considers the hub of a “Russophobic” conspiracy to weaken Russia and overthrow Vladimir Putin.  Perplexed by the hostility, pro-regime media have tried to explain the West’s unfriendly attitude as a manifestation of Western economic avarice: The West seeks to dismember Russia, to weaken her, as a means of controlling and exploiting Russia’s vast cache of natural resources—her oil, natural gas, and precious metals.  Sometimes the story line is that the West is hostile because it sees a resurgent Russia as a potential economic competitor.

The Kremlin misunderstands what is driving the hostility.  Consider Russia’s laws against “gay propaganda”: There are no “gay pride” marches in Moscow.  Russia has resisted the expansion of NATO and the extension of E.U. influence to Ukraine.  Putin has asserted Russian national interests, defending Moscow’s independent foreign-policy course.  In short, Russia is a retrograde, “homophobic,” nationalistic roadblock on the way to the globalist millennium.  No wonder Hillary Clinton has compared Putin to Hitler: In her eyes, it all makes perfect sense.  Putin and Russia symbolize all that the globalist mind despises.  The globalists’ visceral hostility to Russia is not merely a hangover from the Cold War or an excuse for the perpetuation of a vast U.S. military-industrial-security complex—though hostility is stoked by those things as well.  Russia and Putin are manifestations of what neocon and neoliberal globalists see as atavistic resistance to global progress; the world revolution demands that obstacles be removed from its path.

Putin faces international hostility and uncertainty at home.  Russia is in the grip of an economic crisis: Real incomes are declining as wage arrears grow and, along with them, labor protests.  A sharp decline in oil prices has drastically reduced income for the Russian state budget, forcing the Kremlin and Russian regional administrations to cut back on social programs and halt the indexing of pensions (tying pension payments for Russia’s vast army of retirees to the inflation rate).  Promises regarding social programs, healthcare, and education Putin made in his 2012 election campaign have gone unfulfilled.  Corruption and red tape have stalled small- and medium-sized businesses.  Western economic sanctions have made an already gloomy economic forecast worse, blocking Russian businesses’ access to Western credits, and the Russian oil and natural-gas sector’s access to Western technology.  The Russian government has been forced to spend currency reserves to prop up the ruble and fill budget holes.  The Kremlin’s social contract with Russian society and the elite was predicated on improved living conditions for the population and access to vast wealth for the elite in exchange for loyalty.

That social contract is in jeopardy.

Putin has grown wary of the Russian elite.  Western sanctions aimed specifically at major figures connected to the Putin regime and the prospect of the Russian elite being blocked from holding currency accounts and other assets abroad (the Kremlin has pressed “de-offshorization” for some time, while the West could “freeze” Russian foreign assets) mean that Russia’s ruling class may lose its “reserve landing strip” in the West in the event of domestic instability.  Rumors of growing elite discontent—even the possibility of a palace coup—are circulating in Moscow.  Putin has reacted to what he perceives as disloyalty and incompetence among the elite by firing old friends like Vladimir Yakunin, former head of Russian Railways, one of the country’s major state monopolies, and replacing other old comrades like Sergey Ivanov, former head of the powerful Presidential Administration, which is charged with overseeing—and manipulating—Russian politics.  Kremlin-watchers note that Putin is bringing in younger people who are wholly dependent on him and members of the Federal Guards’ Service, which provides security details for Russian officials, to take over important positions in the regime.  One of the bodyguards, Viktor Zolotov, now heads the recently created Russian National Guard, which most Kremlin-watchers have interpreted as Putin’s own praetorian guard.  As his circle of trust narrows, a suspicious Putin is digging in, seeking to protect himself in the event of a domestic and foreign crisis.

As of this writing, the U.S. presidential election is just ahead.  The WikiLeaks scandal, including the release of embarrassing, even damning emails from the Clinton camp, has been used by the pro-Clinton, pro-globalist camp as a basis for howling about an alleged Russian plot (via Russian hackers cooperating with Assange and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign) to interfere in the U.S. election.  Though Putin has understandably made some positive comments about Trump, who is open to negotiating with Moscow (“Mrs. Clinton has chosen aggressive rhetoric and an aggressive stance regarding Russia, and Mr. Trump, on the contrary, is calling for cooperation, at least against terrorism . . . We will certainly welcome anyone who wants to work with us”), Moscow analysts doubt that there was any elaborate conspiracy, though it’s plausible that Russian officials encouraged Kremlin-connected hackers who may have been at least one source of the leaks.  If so, whatever role Russia played in releasing Clinton-campaign and Democratic Party emails was likely meant as a warning to Hillary Clinton, whom Moscow apparently expects to win.  Meanwhile, Washington is reportedly preparing for a possible retaliatory cyberattack against Russian targets.

Leonid Bershidsky, a prominent Russian journalist who describes himself as politically “anti-Putin,” has nonetheless advised caution with regard to Washington’s stance toward Russia: “a military escalation between Russia and the US could have dramatic consequences for my country—and also for the US if it allows itself to be dragged into a conflict with such a dangerous rival.”  Bershidsky advises a pragmatic, nonideological approach to Russia as the best chance at avoiding a dangerous confrontation: “Remove the ideological red lines, allow that Russia may hold onto Crimea and Assad may remain in power in Syria, and try to make pragmatic deals with Putin—for example, siding with him against the Islamic State.”  Risking a military clash in Ukraine or Syria, or stepping up economic sanctions in hopes that the regime will implode, would only force Putin to “pick up the gauntlet as soon as possible, before Russia collapses economically.”  Putin, writes Bershidsky, “does not have a reverse gear . . . he’s willing to play the escalation game.”

On October 6, the Washington Post published an editorial by Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy.  Ostensibly about the 2006 murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the editorial ended with what Moscow will undoubtedly interpret as a call for Putin’s overthrow.  Referring to the Putin regime and the danger he claims it represents to the West, Gershman wrote that “the United States has the power to contain and defeat this danger.  The issue is whether we can summon the will to do so.”

Moscow hasn’t been waiting for the election results to prepare for the worst.  Putin is building up his own personal security at home, getting ready for come-what-may, including a militarized game of chicken with the United States.

What we are witnessing is a very dangerous game, indeed.

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