From the skies over Aleppo, to the battlefields of Eastern Ukraine, to the Democratic National Committee’s email servers, there’s no shortage of evidence that the relationship between Russia and the West is at its lowest ebb since the end of the Cold War. This tension is playing out over a number of separate but related conflicts. Here’s a quick primer on five of the most significant:
Russia completely upended Syria’s civil war in the fall of 2015, when it began launching airstrikes in support of Bashar al-Assad’s government. The Russian government says it is targeting jihadist groups like ISIS, but it draws little distinction between any of the rebel groups fighting Assad, including those backed by the U.S. and its allies. The past month has seen the collapse of a cease-fire deal negotiated by the U.S. and Russia and the resumption of punishing airstrikes against rebel-held areas of the besieged city of Aleppo. The U.S. and France have accused Russia of war crimes over these strikes, some of which have targeted hospitals and aid convoys.
Why does Russia care so much about Syria? Assad is a longtime ally and Russia has operated a naval base in the country for more than 40 years, but more generally, Vladimir Putin is deeply opposed to Western-backed regime change and probably does genuinely believe that it’s fighting terrorism in Syria. The opportunity to make the U.S. look completely powerless probably doesn’t hurt either.
The Obama administration’s critics have accused it of failing to stand up to Russian aggression in Syria, but this is a proxy war where Moscow has all the advantages: Russia enthusiastically backs Assad, and keeping him in power is a clear and achievable goal. The U.S. is ambivalent at best about the anti-Assad rebel groups it nominally supports, and is hazy on what its strategic goals in Syria are, other than destroying ISIS and avoiding another large-scale military commitment in the Middle East. The Obama administration has been hesitant to pursue “tougher” options in Syria, for fear that Russia would only escalate, but that could change under a new U.S. president.
The U.S. Election
Geopolitical competition between the Russia and the U.S., including proxy war, isn’t new. But this is.
On Friday, the Obama administration went public with what officials have been saying for weeks now: that they believe recent email leaks afflicting the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign are the result of Russian cyberattacks, likely authorized at the highest levels of the Russian government. While there hasn’t been a formal accusation yet, U.S. officials also believe Russia may be responsible for recently detected intrusions into voting systems. Judging by the targets, these efforts certainly seem like an attempt to hurt Hillary Clinton and benefit Donald Trump, which would be consistent with allegations of covert Russian support for right-right nationalist parties throughout Europe.
You can go various depths down the rabbit hole when it comes to the precise nature of Russia’s relationship with Trump. But what’s clear is that Trump has broken with much of the Republican Party, including his running mate, in his professed admiration for Putin, and that there are some eyebrow-raising financial links between his campaign and Russia.
Despite the Trump campaign and the best efforts of Kremlin-funded media outlets like RT, Putin remains staggeringly unpopular in the United States, so if Trump loses, it’s hard to imagine Russophilia becoming a big part of the GOP platform going forward. As for what happens in the short term, just making the accusation was a significant step, but the Obama administration hasn’t announced any retaliatory measures yet.
Though Syria and the hacking get more media attention, the U.S.-Russia arms race is the most dangerous aspect of the current tensions. Over the weekend, news broke that Russia had moved nuclear-capable missiles to the Kaliningrad enclave bordering Lithuania and Poland. The defense minister says that this was part of a routine drill, but the U.S. believes it could be a gesture meant to express displeasure with NATO, which has ramped up exercises in Eastern Europe. The timing is certainly interesting, coming just a few days after the Russian government suspended treaties with the U.S. over the disposal of plutonium and nuclear research. The Zvezda TV Network, run by Russia’s Ministry of Defense, announced last week that “Schizophrenics from America are sharpening nuclear weapons for Moscow.”
In the U.S., meanwhile, vice presidential candidate Mike Pence said last week that the U.S. should relaunch plans to deploy a missile defense shield to Poland and the Czech Republic, a George W. Bush–era initiative that was strongly opposed by Russia and abandoned by the Obama administration. Even Trump, never one for consistency, has argued that the U.S. needs to do more to modernize its nuclear arsenal to stay ahead of the Russians, evoking Cold War memories of warnings about the “missile gap.” The U.S. is spending $1 trillion over the next three decades to modernize the American nuclear arsenal and the Obama administration, which started out with bold rhetoric about a world free of nuclear weapons, has blamed Russia for the breakdown of progress on denuclearization. Moscow has several modernization programs of its own underway.
While things have been heading south for a while, the current period of sustained hostility between the U.S. and Russia can probably be dated to February, 2014 when, just as the Winter Olympics were wrapping up in Sochi, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev after days of mass protests demanding his resignation. In the U.S., this was seen as a victory for pro-European supporters of democracy against a corrupt and autocratic government. But it was viewed in Russia as a Western-backed coup against a democratically elected pro-Russian leader, part of a long pattern of anti-Russian interference and meddling by the U.S. and Europe in the former Soviet Union. The Kremlin quickly swung into action, orchestrating the takeover and annexation of Crimea—a majority Russian region that most Russians believe should never have been part of Ukraine in the first place—and backing pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. More than 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict since.
The level of violence has decreased in Eastern Ukraine since a cease-fire was signed in early 2015, though there’s still sporadic fighting and the Russian-supported separatists aren’t backing down. The U.S. and Europe have imposed heavy sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine, most of which are still in place, and provided aid to Ukraine’s government and military. Despite the economic impact of the sanctions on a Russian economy already devastated by low oil prices, most Russians support Putin’s handling of the crisis.
Also part of this mess: Last month, a Dutch-led investigation concluded that the missile that shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine two years ago, killing all 298 people on board, had come from Russia.
Putin vs. His Critics
Russia has denied charges that it is trying to influence the 2016 U.S. election, but if it were true, from a Russian point of view, this would only be fair given what the Kremlin sees as years of meddling in Russia’s domestic politics by the U.S. and other Western governments. The government has gradually increased its own power to shut down “undesirable” nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from abroad. After polls showed support for Putin’s United Russia party slipping before recent parliamentary elections, the country’s only independent polling agency was officially declared a “foreign agent.” Political opposition leaders in Russia are routinely labeled as tools of foreign interest, including the alarming number of them who have been murdered. All of this has taken place at the same time as government efforts to promote traditional Russian cultural and religious values, which many Russians believe have been undermined by Western influence.
I certainly don’t mean to justify the actions of Vladimir Putin’s government, but with tension rising, it’s important to understand that the common thread in all these conflicts is that Russia believes it’s fighting back against an aggressive and much more powerful rival bent on dominating and undermining it. De-escalating this tension won’t be easy.