World politics: The Russian Bear is back

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Gerry Callaghan looks at Russia’s return to the world politics power table.

Russia is back as a major global player after decades on the sidelines of the international political scene. US and European populations are becoming increasingly disillusioned with their political systems, causing much division and inaction. In the West, support for our seemingly perpetual state of war has dwindled. But as the West takes a step aside to reassess its internal worries, focusing more on domestic matters – namely, the US Election and the UK’s Brexit vote – Russia stepped up its aggression in Syria.

The country has been on the resurgence since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of South Ossetia in 2008, to his subsequent annexation of Crimea in 2014, and his backing of Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. However, his successful military support for the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria came as the biggest surprise to the West, who expected the Assad regime to fall quickly despite Russia’s intervention. That hasn’t happened, and global politics now looks to be slowly shifting from US hegemony to a more multipolar international system.

Putin first began to reassert Russian power in 2008 as Russian troops marched into South Ossetia. He followed this up in 2014 by annexing the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine, and invading the east of the country. Finally, at the end of 2015, Russian forces entered Syria. The country’s actions make EU sanctions a possibility which will seriously hamper the country’s ailing economy. Also, the sharp decline in oil prices stifled the Russian economy. But Kremlin control over the Russian media has maintained President Putin’s high approval rating, which sits above 80% per cent  despite the country’s longest recession since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Russian media also successfully managed to portray Putin’s military deployments in Crimea and Syria as victories against Western encroachment.
Despite the hysteria created by the US and European media and its irresponsible rhetoric of a looming third World War, Moscow is not looking for a rerun of the Cold War era. It is looking to increase its soft power and influence around the globe with trade deals and investment, in Japan and India for example. It has neither the economic resources nor the desire to reclaim its lost Soviet territories. There is no doubt that Vladimir Putin has watched from the sidelines as the US wrestled with the responsibilities of a unipolar world, something he will not be keen to replicate.

Over the past decade, the West has shown signs of decline in global clout, with several unsuccessful, costly and extremely unpopular invasions in the Middle East. Terror attacks and heightened alerts at home, combined with successive failed military campaigns in the region, predictably led to disillusionment over the West’s perpetual state of war. So, as appetites cools for more ‘democratic’ interventions in foreign lands, the West is now watching Russia closely as it imposes itself in Syria.

However, according to US and European military advisers, the Russian military was not supposed to be capable of conducting warfare outside its territory. Western leaders assumed, like themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan, that Russia would quickly find itself bogged down in a Syrian quagmire – but things haven’t turned out quite as expected. Following the collapse of months of diplomacy, Russia is pursuing an air campaign in Syria to bolster its ally, Assad, against US-backed rebels and it is establishing permanent bases there. Furious over Russia’s bombardment of the city of Aleppo – in which countless innocent victims were killed – European leaders have warned the Kremlin that it could face consequences if it maintains its offensive in the besieged rebel-held part of the city.

The sharp rhetoric after the EU Summit in October was a substantial change of tone for European leaders, who have long been focused on when they can begin rescinding existing sanctions on Russia rather than stepping them up. Instead, Russian actions in recent months to protect Assad, its largest arms buyer, have changed the conversation entirely. From the Russian-backed destruction of Aleppo, to the shipment of nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad, recent steps have galvanized Western anger and plunged relations to a new low.
Europe’s toughened stance marks a partial victory for Washington, which has struggled to garner European support for sanctions and has historically taken a harder position on Russia than its EU partners. The stand arose against Russia’s punishing airstrike campaign, a campaign that has made little distinction between militia and civilians. “The bombardment of Aleppo is a disregard of principles of humanity, and we cannot accept it,” said German Chancellor, Angela Merkel after EU leaders discussed Russia at the summit. A day earlier in Berlin, Merkel and French President, François Hollande, met with Putin to discuss the situation in both Ukraine and Syria. The leaders criticized Russian actions in Syria and said they would push for a stiff European response. They have called for a full cease-fire in Syria along with an end to the offensive on Aleppo.

Pressure is likely to slow Russian aggression and end the bombardment, but only after Russia has seriously diminished the perceived threat from the Syrian rebels to Assad’s regime. The country will continue its growth in global influence over the next few decades as Moscow reasserts itself. Despite western media’s apocalyptic predictions, the Russians is not aiming at global domination, but trying to rebuild their economy and further economic relations and influence around the globe. Therefore, Russia is well and truly back on the international scene, but the Cold War is not.