During the Cold War, global politics were characterized by the notion of bipolarity: The United States and the Soviet Union were evenly-matched states vying for political, economic, and military dominance. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, it was as if an infamous rivalry in a sporting competition was suddenly broken. The newly formed Russia stepped down and off of the podium as the United States waved to the crowd — supreme, alone, and setting the stage for a new era of global dominance.
As Russia has attempted to both expand in power and establish itself as a legitimate democracy, the United States has shifted its attention toward the Middle East. Though many of the reasons behind the American preoccupation with the region are consequences of Cold War alliances and power plays, the focus of American fear-mongering has shifted from “Soviets” and “commies” to “ISIL” and “al-Qaeda.” In the eyes of many Americans, the largest external threat is perceived to stem from the Middle East. On a foreign policy and military level, from the Gulf Wars and invasion of Kuwait to the current disputes over Syria and the Islamic State, the US appears to no longer be driven by its fear of Russia but by fear of the Middle East. Although Vladimir Putin’s unique persona is frequently satirized and his leadership of Russia is continuously challenged, the nation as a whole is no longer viewed as a force of terror or as a threat comparable to the USSR at the height of the Cold War.
In the past year, however, Putin has also made the shift toward the Middle East by unapologetically attaching himself to the crisis in Syria and aligning with President Bashar al-Assad’s government. He has positioned himself at the center to the conflict, and his leadership has exacerbated the brutal violence that is plaguing the region. But Putin and his government do not have a vested interest in the region. Yes, partnership with Syria would provide it with a Mediterranean port for military vessels, but no Mediterranean nation besides Syria is allied with Putin or requires his protection. It is unclear for what purpose a Russian Mediterranean outpost would be necessary — the only viable explanation for such a motivation would be intimidation. After all, Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea granted it the desired access to key Black Sea trade routes, and Syria’s domestic threats do not come from its coastline. Some propose that Putin is attempting to discipline Chechnyan Islamists who have opposed Assad, but he could easily accomplish this task domestically. Rather, since the collapse of the ceasefire in early October, Putin’s increasingly militant actions — Russia’s bombardment of the hotbed has caused the UN to classify the events in Aleppo as a “humanitarian catastrophe” — reflect a desire to reinstate the power plays of the bipolar world during the Cold War. Although these actions may be detrimental to his global popularity, they would solidify his persona as an unbreakable strongman and establish Russia as a force once again on par with the United States — his ultimate goal.
Last November, the shooting down of a Russian fighter jet by Turkish forces caused a ruckus that not only included Ankara and Moscow — traditional foes — but also deliberately extended throughout the West. Putin alleged that, since the US utilizes Turkish air bases in the fight against ISIL, it had obtained knowledge of the Russian flights and orchestrated the attack. This claim was so far-fetched that Russia seemed to be purposefully rushing to point fingers at the US to aggravate the situation.
Yet Russia’s most pronounced efforts have been the relentless bombing of the Syrian city of Aleppo, a central symbol of its alliance with the Assad regime. Putin and his Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, have justified these actions by claiming that they will solidify government control of the city, which is currently divided in rule between rebels, Assad supporters, and ISIL. Critics, however, fear that Russia’s goal is more deeply-rooted: to devastate the Syrian rebel forces to such an extent that their only option in countering the Assad regime would be alignment with the Islamic State. This situation would create a one-on-one power dynamic in the region between the Assad government and the Islamic State that would force Western governments, particularly the United States and European Union (which have supported rebel groups through gritted teeth) to pick a side. This is an impossible struggle; both parties are equally committed to terror, but in different ways. If such an event were to occur, Russia’s support of the Assad regime would appear in a far more favorable light, especially when directly contrasted with the horror of the Islamic State. In short, Russia hopes to act as Syria’s surrogate with the ultimate goal of establishing itself, not the United States, as the power most in direct opposition with ISIL.
The relentless bombing of Aleppo has become a self-promotion and propaganda scheme for Putin at the cost of hundreds of lives every week.
Relations outside of the tricky triangle of power in Syria have also become strained as result of Putin’s relentless and systematic bombing. Diplomatic relations between Russia on the one hand and the United States and EU on the other are tenser than ever before. The EU has discussed the implementation of sanctions, while the US is desperately imploring Russia to differentiate between terrorist groups and conventional opposition forces in its bombing campaigns. European leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel argue that Russia’s actions have become an issue of human rights – a fitting prelude to October 28’s removal of Russia from the United Nations’ Human Rights Council.
Beyond the scope of the Middle East, Putin has, at times, almost directly articulated his intent to initiate aggressions against the United States. After the Democratic National Committee’s servers were hacked and the incident was credited to Russian nationals, Putin has made it his objective to list all alleged grievances against the United States. Although this event is not directly related to the Syrian War, Russia’s seemingly systematic plotting against the American political system — and the subsequent central role Putin has played in the 2016 election— are emblematic of his quest for greater recognition, importance, and respect in the world.
Despite what he may say, particularly in the context of the Middle East, peace is never Mr. Putin’s goal: why, otherwise, would he indefinitely postpone peace talks regarding Syria and meddle in the domestic affairs of other nations? He aims to boost his own status through alienation. His domestic approval ratings have remained above 80 percent since 2014’s events in Crimea: perhaps the Russian populace craves shows of power on a global stage. However, it is highly plausible that the Russian government, which organizes and conducts this polling, has chosen its participants selectively or has skewed data in order to legitimize Putin’s questionable actions. Even so, this practice demonstrates that Putin’s policy is fueled by a burning desire to boost his own persona, and being able to quantify the subjective is always useful in such a quest even if the numbers are fabricated.
Up until recently, theories of re-emerging Cold War dynamics have been more far-fetched and theoretical than grounded in actual events. But October 21, Russia sent two aircraft carriers to Aleppo by route of the English Channel, a blatant display of force. In taking such a strange route, Russia intentionally aimed to provoke and intimidate European powers. Guiding its powerful vessels through Western waters is eerily reminiscent of the daily Soviet-US interactions at Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie, where tanks from either side rode and displayed themselves visibly to the other in an attempt to intimidate and cause the other to falter with aggressive vehicles. These actions are of course also emblematic of a nation that wishes to distance itself from Europe and define itself as its own sovereign and individual entity.
For a fleeting instance after the Cold War, Russia appeared to be prioritizing its democratization and development of allegiances throughout the world. However, Putin’s “tsarist” presidency has rapidly changed that course of action by polarizing not only himself but also the whole nation. While the world becomes more and more disillusioned with Russia’s progress, he only grows prouder. Putin’s actions in the Middle East confirm this phenominon: Since Syria is of no particular importance to him and Bashar al-Assad is only diminishing in power, this alliance is increasingly meaningless. But Putin is maintaining these strongman tactics to preserve his power nationally: Popular approval seems to lie in public demonstrations of power and baiting US aggression. The relentless bombing of Aleppo has become a self-promotion and propaganda scheme for Putin at the cost of hundreds of lives every week.