“It’s not a new Cold War,” President Barack Obama insisted in July of 2014. He was right, but Americans properly found this pronouncement of little comfort. The West’s now self-evident and almost open conflict with an expansionist Russia does not represent the start of a new Cold War; it’s much more alarmingly dangerous than that.
It had only been 22 months since Barack Obama admonished Mitt Romney for what he described as a desire to mirror Ronald Reagan’s confrontational approach toward Russia. “The 1980s are calling,” the president quipped. “They want their foreign policy back.” By July of 2014, the 1980s had gotten their wish, not to mention a rapidly graying president. Less than a year earlier, Moscow provided Obama with a Trojan horse in the form of a negotiated arrangement in which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would surrender his chemical weapons stockpiles in order to forestall what Secretary of State John Kerry called the forthcoming “unbelievably small” retaliatory air campaign against the WMD-wielding regime. A settlement was reached, and the airstrikes never came, but the chemical weapons continued to exact their gruesome toll.
Five months prior, Obama’s efforts to reassure a nervous American press corps that the bad old days of mutual mistrust and conflict between Russia and the United States had not made a striking comeback, Russia invaded Ukraine. With a stunning brazenness, Vladimir Putin became the first European leader since Joseph Stalin to invade and annex sovereign territory in Europe. Just two weeks before Obama took to the podium in the attempt to mollify a concerned nation, forces loyal to Russia in Ukraine had killed hundreds of Westerners and Malaysians when they inadvertently shot a passenger plane out of the sky.
The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 reminded the world how a single incident can rapidly spiral out of control, and why unchecked aggression by one of the world’s foremost nuclear powers is so deadly serious. The president had and continues to refuse to provide Ukrainian forces with lethal aid so as to ensure that Putin suffered a bloody nose in his new European battlefield. Instead, in response to the dramatic escalation of tensions on the continent, Barack Obama announced a new round of sanctions on Russian individuals and institutions. He averred, however, that the 1980s had definitely not come calling for its foreign policy.
“What it is is a very specific issue related to Russia’s unwillingness to recognize that Ukraine can chart its own path,” the president said. The experts nodded and agreed. Russia, you see, could not afford its adventurism in Ukraine. It most certainly couldn’t absorb the economic shock of the sanctions regime under which it must now labor. But Putin had already achieved his objective in Ukraine by destabilizing the anti-Moscow regime in Kiev and creating a set of conditions on the ground that represent the new status quo. That conflict is now “frozen,” as are similar proto-wars in places like Georgia and Moldova, just waiting for the order from the Kremlin to thaw.
Moscow now has a bigger conflict to prosecute, one in which the United States cannot decline to engage. Russia had spent the better part of the last two months paving the way for intervention in the Syrian civil war. Last Monday, that campaign began with a dramatic attack on CIA-armed and trained rebels under the guise of airstrikes on the Islamic State. The United States immediately scrambled to pursue “deconfliction” talks with Moscow, with the singular purpose of establishing military-to-military contacts so that Russian and NATO forces operating in the Syrian theater wouldn’t accidently start shooting at each other. But Russia’s aim is to ignite conflict. Its desire is to prop up the ailing Assad regime and to force NATO assets and its proxies out of Western Syria (and, eventually, out of the country entirely). It is a farce to pursue “deconfliction” when triggering conflict is the whole purpose of this exercise.
Still, Barack Obama continues to give the same speech he gave in July of 2014.
“We’re not going to make Syria into a proxy war between the United States and Russia. That would be a bad strategy on our part,” Obama asserted last Friday. “This is a battle between Russia, Iran, and Assad against the overwhelming majority of the Syrian people. Our battle is with ISIL.” To maintain the fiction that the United States and Russia are not engaged in statecraft through brinkmanship in Syria, Obama reportedly plans to provide Moscow with even more U.S.-backed targets to shoot at.
The New York Times reported on Friday that the American-led multinational coalition plans to increase the pressure on the Islamic State in places like its provisional capital of Raqqa from the air while simultaneously intensifying the ground campaign. Obama approved the loosening of the criteria for vetting rebel fighters before providing them with Western ammunition and weapons last week. America hopes to produce 3,000 to 5,000 new indigenous anti-ISIS Arab fighters to join the 20,000 Kurds already combating the Islamist militia. Washington hopes to “open a major front in northeastern Syria,” well away from the epicenter of Russian combat operations that have targeted anti-Assad rebel factions in the country’s west.
This strategy targets ISIS as much as it does Russia. “By gradually expanding the area of the coalition’s air operations, the administration could protect more America-backed rebel forces and possibly hem in Russia’ own operations,” the New York Times’ sources revealed.
Meanwhile, Russia is pursuing its own strategy to “hem” Western forces into an ever shrinking space inside Syria’s borders. Over the weekend, Russia conducted an “unacceptable violation” of Turkish airspace, according to NATO officials. The Times reported that Western military officials do not believe the incursion was an accident, and they see it as evidence that Russia intends to accelerate the crisis it has sparked in Syria. Soon, Moscow warned, hundreds if not thousands of “volunteers” similar to the “little green men” who ignited full-scale civil conflict in Ukraine will be headed into combat in Syria. Russia is testing the parameters of NATO’s commitment to its own defense on the periphery of the alliance in what is almost surely a prelude to a similar provocation in Europe.
In a sense, Obama was correct when he insisted that a new Cold War was not in the offing. The Soviets would have been far more cautious about inviting confrontation with the West and fomenting wars in unpredictable caldrons like Syria. Unlike the Soviets who for much of the country’s existence believed that history’s arc bent resolutely in Moscow’s direction, Putin does not believe that time is a commodity he can afford to spend recklessly. The Russian public is restless and dissatisfied, an extraordinarily malleable American president will soon leave office, and financial pressures have compelled the Kremlin to scale back its already unsustainable military expenditures. All these factors make Russia an even more dangerous actor. It would rather risk a major confrontation with the West now than allow this window of opportunity to close unexploited.
No, it’s not a new Cold War. It’s something much more perilous.