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Cold War Reinvented

In terms of both self-respect and political clout Russia has come a fair distance since its nadir under Boris Yeltsin. Jacques Levesque, writing in Le Monde Diplomatique, points to two recent international successes enjoyed by Vladimir Putin. The first was in relation to Syria, where the US wanted to intervene but found itself isolated – even the UK said no. It had to pull back, somewhat ignominiously, allowing Putin to appear as an international statesman and preserver of peace. The second was over the Edward Snowden affair. The US response was disproportionate; pressure was applied on China, Venezuela, Ecuador and Cuba in order to deny Snowden asylum, with valuable diplomatic capital expended in the process. The US even pressurised its allies to deny airspace to a plane carrying the Bolivian president which was suspected of also carrying Snowden. As Levesque suggests, it was as if Snowden was an enemy comparable to Osama Bin Laden. But Snowden’s radical ideology was homegrown ‑ actually in a direct line from the principles of the eighteenth century enlightenment, the ideological source of the US constitution and European democracy. This was soon to become clear as a critical mass of politicians and commentators angrily denounced electronic spying on the population. The backlash forced the US authorities to modify their defence of mass surveillance, an action which implied at a minimum that Snowden had a point. And Russia, by offering him asylum when no one else would, was seen not only as leading the opposition to American dominance but also doing the world, and the principles of freedom, a favour. Not bad for a government which brooks no opposition. Why the US wants to see “regime change” in Syria is something of a puzzle. The idea that American analysts believe a western-oriented parliamentary democracy would emerge in post-Assad Syria can be dismissed out of hand. Superpower analysts may be morally unattractive but they are not fantasists. What are the other possible explanations? Is the hostility because Assad is in close alliance with Moscow? Perhaps. Certainly Moscow believes the maintenance of Assad in power is very much in its interest and is keeping the armaments flowing. If this is the case it all sounds very cold war-like, and isn’t all that supposed to be over? Actually Russia has a more contemporary reason for supporting Assad. As Levesque argues, Russian naval facilities – its window onto the Mediterranean, as…

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