Towards a new Cold War
The rapid changes and escalated tension in the Syrian civil war have been occupying international agenda for a very long time. Indeed, it has become a crucial issue for global security with its convoluted social, economic, humanitarian, military, and geostrategic aspects. The complexity of the situation was once again reflected at the last week’s Munich Security Conference (MSC), a major global forum that brings political leaders and key security experts together annually, held on Feb. 12-14, 2016. Syria was understandably the main topic of the discussion; but, more importantly, in the back of the attendees’ minds was the future of the global order and stability.
Speeches of important political figures at such prestigious gatherings provide an opportunity to experts to glimpse into leaders’ thinking about current issues of the day. As such, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech at the 2007 MSC has become legendary in its audacity. In a rather fiery speech, President Putin warned his audience very dramatically against the United States’ global supremacy, declared the eastward expansion of NATO a provocation and threatened that Russia had weapons that could neutralize the anti-missile defense shield planned to be installed then by the U.S. and NATO in Eastern Europe.
Not many people at the time recognized this as a declaration of a dawn of a new era in Russia-West relations. But not many today doubt the seriousness of Russian Prime Minister Dimtry Medvedev’s description during his speech at this year’s MSC of the strained relationship between Russia and the West as a “new Cold War,” mostly due to former’s actions in Syria and Ukraine.
Russia and the West have been at odds since the former started using strong-arm tactics to further its interests in international arena; first in Georgia (2008), then Ukraine (2014) and most recently in Syria (2015). In accordance with Putin’s aim of regaining its superpower status, Russia was also implicated in the cyber-attack against Estonia in 2007, and purposely increased tension over European airspace in the last two years.
Although NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg highlighted NATO’s dual-track strategy of defense and dialogue with Russia at the MSC, there appears to be not much dialogue between the two. Since the annexation of Crimea and cross-border activities in eastern Ukraine by Russia, NATO has been reinforcing its military infrastructure in Eastern Europe.
Apart from NATO efforts, the U.S. announced a four-fold increase to $3.4 billion in the U.S. budget for the European Reassurance Initiative, which was declared on June 3, 2014 by U.S. President Barack Obama to “reassure allies of the U.S. of its commitment to their security and territorial integrity.” Upgrading U.S. military presence in Europe clearly indicated the seriousness of a perceived Russian challenge.
Although the last week’s agreement on Syria between the U.S. and Russia for the beginning a ceasefire and delivering humanitarian aid was considered as positive sign by some pundits, the reality of the global confrontation has much clearly present on the ground even in Syria, where the agreement was almost immediately challenged by the rapid change of scenery and continued struggle by various parties to gain upper hand on the ground.
Due to the lack of a concrete forward-base U.S. policy, Russia has gained a strong position in Syria and achieved a favorable stalemate in Ukraine, consolidating its gains in Crimea. Despite all the problems he is facing at home, Putin has in recent years played his cards well in international arena, where he is admittedly facing only weak challenges, a disorganized West, and unwilling U.S. to take a stand. It will no doubt be more difficult to turn the tide back when the latter finally decides to do something about it.