Photo: AP
Photo: AP

Russia and the return of history

Liberal sentimentalism about internationalism led to post-Cold War complacency in the West about its values

It was another bad week for Syrian civilians caught up in that country’s civil war. Approximately 50 civilians were killed in several missile strikes on hospitals and schools in northern Syria earlier in the week, just days before a temporary ceasefire is slated to come into effect. One of the targets was an aid hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, known commonly by its French acronym, MSF. Mego Terzian, president of MSF France, has suggested that “either the (Syrian) government or Russia" was responsible for the attack.

The US responded by saying that continuing strikes on civilian targets cast “doubt on Russia’s willingness and/or ability to help bring to a stop the continued brutality of the Assad regime against its own people". But Russia has said it “categorically rejects" any accusations that it was responsible for the attacks, with the Kremlin charging, “Those who make such statements are not capable of backing them up with proof."

Both the US and Russia are now claiming that a new Cold War is in the offing. Speaking at the annual Munich Security Conference last week, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev claimed that Europe was “rapidly rolling into a period of a new Cold War". Russia, he said, “has been presented as well-nigh the biggest threat to Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), or to Europe, America and other countries". Just a few days earlier in Washington, the director of the US National Intelligence Agency, James Clapper, was giving evidence on “worldwide threats" to the influential Senate Armed Services Committee during which he argued that “the Russians fundamentally are paranoid about Nato", and that the West “could be into another Cold War-like spiral here".

Russia has used the modern lexicon of humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping to disguise its aspirations to reassert its control in what it considers its own backyard, the Caucasus. The old battle lines between Russia and the West are being redrawn, with the faintest of hopes that Russia would ally with the West dwindling rapidly. There will be no business as usual between Russia and Nato from now on. Russia has clearly stated its intention to reclaim its position as the primary geopolitical concern of the West. The Russia-Ukraine conflict is taking place in a broader strategic milieu in which Russia is re-emerging as a major global actor. Russia under Putin wants to establish itself as a balancer to US might. Economic problems are mounting for Russia, but there is huge support for an assertive foreign policy among a Russian public that remains nostalgic for its great power status.

With the Taliban gaining ground in Afghanistan and West Asia in ferment, the West increasingly seems to be losing its ability to dictate terms to an emerging global order. Europe, in particular, is witnessing a steady loss of self-confidence, turning inwards and growing pessimistic about the future. Ideological competition is in full swing: a former Russian foreign minister argued that “for the first time in many years, a real competitive environment has emerged in the market of ideas between different value systems and development models". According to him, the West is losing its monopoly on the globalization process. Putin got away with the seizure of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 and has managed to retain Crimea. US President Barack Obama has little credibility left after his red lines on Syria were conveniently ignored by his own administration. Countries like Estonia and Latvia, with significant Russian-speaking populations, are worried as Putin seems to have given rise to a new doctrine of protecting ethnic Russians, wherever they might be.

Putin has been investing billions into revamping the Russian military machine over the past several years, and Moscow’s entry into the war in Syria has been a coming-out party for the gear those investments have produced. Moscow wants the world to see that it has finally tossed off the musty old Soviet overcoat and is ready again to be a global military power. It wants the world to notice its new capabilities, and US and Nato troops are more than happy to oblige, with the alliance troops starting to train against the latest Russian battlefield tactics and technologies, using what they are learning from Ukrainian troops who have been fighting Russian forces and their separatist allies for over a year in Ukraine’s east.

Not only do American and Russian officials have different goals—the removal of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad versus propping up, at the very least, the ruling apparatus around him—they have also been arguing over who is doing a better job of bombing legitimate targets in Syria. France and Russia may have just suffered grievous blows at the hands of Islamic State operatives, but the wrangling for influence in a critical part of the world between Washington and an increasingly insistent Moscow will likely drive the future of the conflict. Despite some tentative reconciliation attempts, each refuses to accept how the other is waging the war in Syria. There have been signs that Moscow is starting to question the high financial cost and insignificant battlefield gains after months of its deployment to Syria, with some beginning to fear Russia may be stuck in a quagmire. The Russian economy is in trouble with the fall in oil prices and many are predicting an end of the Putin era. Russia today is not the superpower of the past, but a relatively weak state trying to assert itself where it can.

Raymond Aron, the great political philosopher of the 20th century, was right: “What passes for optimism is most often the effect of an intellectual error." Liberal sentimentalism about internationalism and human nature led to post-Cold War complacency in the West about its values. This complacency has come back to haunt it, a tad sooner than expected: history is back with a vengeance.

Harsh V. Pant is professor of international relations at King’s College, London.

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