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 it were ‑ are not that important. But if the idea of preserving the Tartus naval installation at all costs is old hat, the danger of Islamic hostilities directed against Russia is not.
The Chechen Islamic rebellion may have quietened in recent years but the threat has not disappeared. Terrorist bombings continue and are now also occurring in Dagestan and Ingushetia. Threats have been made against the winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014. It is also widely believed that several hundred Muslim Russians are fighting with the anti-Assad militias in Syria. A fragmented Syria could function as a base for Islamic attacks against Russia and it is this danger, rather than cold war proxy politics, that explains Russia’s support for the Assad regime.
But does it also explain the American’s anti-Assad position which is, de facto, supportive of the Islamic militias? If it does, doesn’t it suggests the Americans have short memories. Didn’t they back the Islamists when the Russians invaded Afghanistan, and didn’t it prove impossible to put the genie back in the bottle? And wasn’t that in some way connected to 9/11? The answer may be that the Americans have thought it through and don’t see militant and nationalist Islam as a fundamental threat to their world power. Perhaps they even see militant Islam as wild card to be used in their efforts to consolidate a unipolar world, a wild card they are willing to play against the Russians and perhaps, in due course, against the Chinese.
While it is not possible to know whether such thinking is even close to significant threads within the US analysis, it should be noted that it is compatible with the Russian view of the US as described by Levesque: “… a consensus emerged among Russia’s political elite that the US was trying to prevent the re-emergence of Russia as even a minor international power … Since 1996 the official goal of foreign policy has been to strengthen the global trend towards multi-polarity, so as to reduce US dominance.” China’s view of the world may be similar. Certainly Russia and China are working closely together on international affairs.
It is more than a little depressing to contemplate the possibility that the old cold war narrative which restricted the potential of so many individuals and peoples over the latter half of the twentieth century has given way to a new overarching narrative ‑ equally laden with oppressive potential for anyone in the way ‑ that of multipolarity versus unipolarity. If this is the shape of things to come, the future might well be depressing but it is unlikely to be dull.
In such a scenario, one of the questions of particular concern to us in Europe would be what the role of the EU might be. Certainly, looking at events in the Ukraine, Moscow would appear to regard the EU as a US satellite. Just how accurate this judgement will prove to be will be of no small interest to those forces within the EU which hoped for an influential role for Europe in a multipolar world.
Jacques Levesque, “Russia Returns”, Le Monde Diplomatique, November 2013