Saturday, December 05, 2015

The menace

The last time I wrote on this blog was to note the extreme behaviour of Vladimir Putin's Russia. The reason for doing so was a sense of foreboding about his attempts to rejuvenate Russia as a world power. Now, more than a year and a half later, the concerns about Russia's activities in Ukraine persist, and of course Putin has become involved in the conflict in Syria. This is one more step along the road to a critical mass- but a critical mass for what, to what end, where does the momentum lead?

Contrary to what I said before, Russia is far from behaving like a psychopath. The truth is much more interesting than the poetic notion. 

First we need to recognise that Russia's position is hardly simple, even if the complexity is partly of its own choosing. Recent events, such as the downing of Russian tourist flight A321 in Egypt, have demonstrated that there is clearly a major threat to Russia from terrorism in the world at large, but this is even truer in Russia itself. Putin's need to build prestige, indicated by his sabre-rattling and his Crimea land-grab, is to do with countering this threat. Russians, like Frenchmen and Britons, have been drawn to the black flags of ISIS, and in Russia's case they may be recruits generated by internal muslim groups of long standing in the Russian 'sphere', for example the Chechens. 

Thus we can see that Putin partly acts tough to intimidate such opponents and to boost his popularity at home, where his core population sees itself under threat from the East.

In light of this, can we say whether Russia is a threat to Europe and the US owing to its territorial pangs in Eastern Europe, or should we rather say that it represents both a de facto and potential ally against Islamism? How should we describe such things as Putin's antagonism towards Turkey: the bullying of a NATO member, or natural tension towards an historic Islamic power whose actions in the current heightened state of affairs are ambiguous and possibly strongly self-interested, and who, moreover, shot down a supposedly straying Russia fighter? 

One thing should be obvious- if Putin wanted to make a united front with the UK/US/French etc, he could have done so by abandoning Assad and throwing his weight behind a alternative acceptable to these allies. It was not concern that Assad's departure would leave a vacuum that led Putin to support Assad. No, the key thing was to undermine NATO or US/UK/French foreign policy. 

Behind this is possibly the recognition of a rising Islamic tide. So far I have not mentioned the attacks in Paris in November. I have not mentioned the attacks in San Bernadino a few days ago. I have not mentioned the murder of tens of British tourists in Tunisia in July this year. Nevertheless, a rising tide is certainly about us, and Putin is well aware of this. Since Russia is particularly vulnerable, it is important that other countries should be given more trouble that Russia is- partly for propaganda reasons, but also because weakness would encourage Islamists to make his regime the first to be toppled in search of a new Islamic world power entity, otherwise known as Caliphate.

Thus, if the US and allies are stymied in the Middle East that's a useful signal to his enemies to target Europe rather than Russia. It also diminishes their standing and therefore (in a bi-polar world) raises his. Meanwhile, sponsoring Assad, whom no-one else would touch with a barge-pole, secures Russia a foothold in the Middle East that may be a crucial bargaining chip with a future caliphate power, which might for instance include a radicalised Turkey.

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