US-Russia: dangerous brinkmanship

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Sushil P seth

One doesn’t want to seem alarmist but the sound and fury of recriminations between the US-led west and Russia over Syria is worrying, to put it mildly. Russia’s military intervention on behalf of Bashar al-Assad’s regime has made quite a difference, and now they are pushing ahead with seeking control of the entire city of Aleppo, which already is a scene of devastation with contribution from Russian-led bombings. Russia justifies it to help Syria fight terrorism, and believes that they might have saved Syria from becoming a vast terrorist network. In the US, there is strong pressure on Barack Obama to jump into the fray militarily with one reported suggestion being to carpet bomb Syria’s airfields to deny the Assad regime control of the skies, which gives them such an important advantage.
In this brutal conflict neither side is acting with any kind of restraint. The rebels/jihadis/terrorists have committed some heinous crimes and are continuing to do so but, for some time now, they appear to be on the defensive because of Russian military involvement on behalf of the Assad regime. The more lethal recent phase of the conflict started with the breakdown of the ceasefire between the two sides, which had been agreed to between the US and Russia to facilitate relief supplies to the besieged residents of east Aleppo. All hell broke loose after the US said it had mistakenly bombed the regime’s forces killing 60 of their soldiers, which the Assad regime described as deliberate and Russians apparently agreed. The response from the Damascus regime was instantaneous with more intensified bombing of eastern Aleppo, killing a number of civilians, and hitting some medical facilities. Since then, Moscow has come in for serious criticism, accused of committing war crimes.
The French have taken the lead by more or less uninviting President Vladimir Putin who was scheduled to visit France for some official ceremonies. President Francois Hollande told Moscow that Putin’s visit, if it went ahead, would only be concentrated on seeking explanations from the Russian president about the criminality of its Syrian operations. Not surprisingly, Putin cancelled his visit. At the same time, the British were not behind in castigating Putin, with the British foreign minister, Boris Johnson, calling for demonstrations outside the Russian embassy in London. The US is visibly angry, with Secretary of State, John Kerry, showing exasperation at Russia’s continued participation in military operations with Assad regime against rebels in Aleppo, highlighting civilian deaths and targeting medical facilities.
Both Damascus and Moscow, on the other hand, are emphasising the anti-terror nature of their operations, maintaining that the US is unwilling to distinguish between terrorists and other rebel groups. This heightened war of words between Russia and the US-led west is not just empty rhetoric. Fearing US intervention, Moscow has reportedly deployed the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Syria, and reinforced its military presence by sending three missile ships to the Mediterranean. A Russia naval flotilla passed through the English Channel heading towards Syrian waters.
It is worth remembering that the heightened tensions over Syria comes against the backdrop of already toxic relations between Russia and the US and its NATO allies over Ukraine, where the crisis continues to simmer after the Russian occupation of Crimea and its support of separatists in eastern Ukraine. This crisis followed when Ukraine’s pro-Russian president was overthrown in an uprising that, according to some reports, had CIA backing, as he opposed his country’s virtual inclusion in European Union and, possibly, in NATO. The eastward expansion of NATO to include Baltic and eastern European states as its members, has created security fears in Moscow. At the same time, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has further strengthened fears of its Baltic neighbours and others that now are also NATO members, seeking visible US and NATO military presence to deter Russia, which has already happened.
It is, therefore, a vicious circle with both sides keen to show that they mean business. Moscow has increased its military presence both in the Mediterranean and Baltic regions, and has also suspended a nuclear non-proliferation treaty with the US.
Russia has stationed missiles’ equipped ships in its Kaliningrad enclave, sandwiched between NATO members Poland and Lithuania, which can carry nuclear warheads. Poland’s defence minister said the action caused the “highest concern.”
A Russian TV presenter, Dmitry Kiselyov, reportedly warned on his Vesti Nedelyi programme: “Offensive behaviour towards Russia has a nuclear dimension.” And Alexei Pushkov, a Russian senator, reportedly raised the prospect of a confrontation like the 1962 Cuban missile crisis between the US and Russia, which, if it were to happen, would take us back to the height of the Cold War days. It has led the former Soviet Union president, Mikhail Gorbachev, to warn of dangers ahead.
Rationally, neither Russia nor the US-led NATO can afford to let the volatile situation in Syria and Ukraine get out of control, simply because of its nuclear dimension, even if uttered loosely by non-state actors. At another level, an implicit understanding is developing between Russia and China to confront US, as both have serious security issues with Washington — South China Sea in the case of Beijing. Whether this will lead to a formal pact/alliance is difficult to predict at this stage. In any case, by taking on the US to demonstrate power parity, at least at broad military level, Putin appears to have restored Russia’s prestige among its people after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And this has reportedly made him immensely popular in his country.
But this might turn out to be illusory in the medium and long term, simply because Russia can’t sustain a war of nerves because of its relatively weak economic situation. With international oil price around half or less than a decade or so ago, Russia’s revenue coffers are not too healthy. And western economic sanctions from the Ukrainian crisis, and threat of even more of the same only adds to this. But the danger is that both sides might become a prisoner of their own rhetoric and hard positions leading inextricably to a showdown of some sort. And that might overshadow all other conflicts in the world.