Later today (Saturday) talks will take place in Switzerland between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The aim: to broker another ceasefire in Syria. Kerry has already said he doesn’t expect any positive results.
Why? US-Russia relations have not been so poor since the Cold War, and they’re getting worse by the day, with potentially terrible results. It’s easy to get distracted by all the other troubling events unfolding domestically and abroad – as many people have pointed out, there’s just too much “news” in 2016 (and Francis Fukuyama is probably getting sick of all the ribbing for his ‘end of history’ quote back in the 90s, rightly or wrongly) – but this should be demanding everyone’s attention.
Last night (Oct 14), NBC discovered the CIA is preparing an unprecedented cyber strike against Russia, one designed to “harass and embarrass” the Kremlin leadership. Because this is all keystrokes and screens, many dismiss this as not true warfare, or at the very least one that will not result in any deaths. That’s misjudging both the psychological state of Putin and his precarious position as the leader of a Mafia State where the rule of law is tenuous for people at the top and where the bullet beats the ballot.
Meanwhile, here in London, at the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has been talking up the likelihood of UK-US military action in Syria” “We can’t just see Aleppo pulverised… We have to do something. Whether that means we can get a coalition together for more kinetic action now I cannot prophesy, but certainly what most people want to see is a new set of options.”
This could only result in direct confrontation with Russia, which, under Putin, has wagered everything in support of Syria’s desperate President Assad. At the moment, this might be considered sabre-rattling, to warm the blood in advance of today’s Swiss talks. But, again, the psychology, the Mafia State.. Backing down is not an option for Putin.
There’s a growing sense that NATO sees Syria as critical. If Putin isn’t stopped now, he will keep going – he will *have* to keep going to appease domestic critics concerned with a tanking economy. But the West also senses that he’s vulnerable, and there’s a belief that the hard men around him might choose to act against the leader rather than risk a devastating confrontation with an unpredictable outcome.
One thing’s for sure: when everything is so finely balanced on the brink of war, in the coming months and years, the West is going to need leaders that are a safe pair of hands.