Away from the clown show that is Trump’s presidential bid, the ludicrousness of post-Brexit debate and the self-immolation of the Labour Party, an important event slipped by.
It wasn’t flashy – that’s the key for traction in modern media – but the US’ public accusation that Russia was trying to interfere in the coming election was unprecedented. In years past, the intelligence services would never have openly flagged up Russian involvement in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee servers to sow chaos and try to get a win for Trump, an ‘admirer’ of Putin. That they now feel forced to do so shows how much things have escalated.
The key to understanding Russia under Putin is not to see it as a country in the democratic tradition with which we’re all familiar. Imagine it more as that part of New Jersey ruled over by Tony Soprano and the mob. Thanks to Wikileaks, we know the US has long considered Russia a Mafia state, where the rule of law does not apply to people at the top. If you fail, or offend, or break the code, you’re more likely to get rubbed out Soprano-style than sacked.
This is the calculation Vladimir Putin continually has to make. He can’t be seen to fail. Nor can he be seen to back down. Both paths will result in defenestration with extreme prejudice. His invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine was designed to draw attention away from major economic failings. It only made things worse. Western sanctions hobbled the economy further. But he can’t pull out his backing for the Ukraine resistance to put things right. That would be failure.
The only way forward is something bigger, to distract attention from the economy *and* Ukraine. And so: Syria. Russia jumping with both feet into the barrel of dynamite that is the Syrian civil war was supposed to be a mark of prestige. They can still ‘get things done’, unlike the US. They’re not a failing power that can’t make anything the world needs – they have a sphere of influence. They talk, very loudly, people listen.
Russia came in on the side of the beleaguered President Assad, a long time ally, and took a stance in direct opposition to the West’s strategic aims. By saying one thing and doing another, it has disrupted the plans of the US and its allies. It’s behind the bombing of aid convoys, most western intelligence services believe, and now it’s about to move in a battery of S300 air defence missiles, which could cause carnage when the skies are thick with US planes.
There is no plan, only the illusion of a plan for the consumption of his domestic critics. Look over here! No, look over there! Ukraine! Syria! The US elections! Misdirection as a strategy is not sustainable. The only way Putin can maintain his position – and perhaps even his life – is escalation, each newer, bigger outrage wiping out memories of the last failure.
But like the noise made by a mouthy drunk in a bar, there’s a point where everyone decides they’re not going to sit back and take it any more. NATO has to step up or lose the potency it needs to keep Russia contained. What will trigger a confrontation? A Russian attack on Estonia and the Baltic States? A ‘skirmish’ on the Polish border?
US-Russia relations are worse than at any time since the Cold War, and some analysts believe that this is absolutely the start of Cold War mk II. But that concept of a frozen conflict only works if both sides make rational, strategic calculations. If it’s personal, if one of the players only wants to keep his job/head on his neck, than no other outcome matters, even if it’s destruction on a grand scale.
Now: who do you want in the White House?