The sequel to the critically acclaimed (and highly controversial) “Cold War” that ran from 1945 to 1989, Cold War 2: Electric Boogaloo follows one of the main actors of the previous Cold War, Russia, as it struggles to come to terms with its loss of empire at the end of the previous instalment. Unlike its predecessor, Cold War 2 is decidedly limited in scope, taking place mainly in Syria and is a reflection of Russia’s diminished role as a global power and of the simple budgetary limitations that have come with it. Gone are the days of tens of thousands of Soviet tanks massed in Europe to overrun NATO. Gone are the days of Moscow being mentioned in the same breath as Washington or Beijing. Gone are the days of the KGB calling the shots in Moscow… oh wait, never mind. The relative absence of the United States from the feature (aside from a brief cameo after chemical weapons were used) has also been a noticeable difference. Yet in spite of that, while this new installment to the franchise may seem like a nostalgic throwback to a bygone era, Cold War 2 nonetheless serves as a potent reminder that not all of us have let go of the bad old days.
For the Russian Federation, in a way the Cold War has never truly been over. The fall of the Soviet Union and the decade of humiliation that followed under Boris Yeltsin’s presidency cemented the idea in people’s minds both in and out of Russia that the new Russian Federation was no longer a superpower by any means. In that sense, the rise of Vladimir Putin was a return to form, with Russia gradually re-establishing its influence over many post-Soviet states. Putin also embodied much of the Soviet nostalgia that accompanied Russia’s long drift into irrelevance. For many Russians, the Cold War, or at least its foreign policy dynamic, was a period that Russia can look back on with a certain degree of pride. It was certainly the height of Russian military and scientific achievement, as well as being the only period in Russian history where they were a truly global power with a network of allies and bases that protected their interests abroad. Considering the downgrade to regional power status and the degradation of Russia’s science and technology sector, all the while their once-poor counterparts in China have soared effortlessly to the top, it is easy to see why some Russians, especially the former-Soviet bureaucrats that dominate the Foreign Ministry, still look wistfully to the way things used to be.
Syria is in many ways just the latest target of this post-Soviet nostalgia. In the years following Putin’s rise, Russia found its relations with the West worsening significantly, leading Moscow to reach out to past allies; Syria was an early beneficiary of this policy, with Russia forgiving 75% of Syria’s debt, in part to encourage arms purchases. That said, Syria remained a relative footnote in Russia’s foreign policy history since the end of the Cold War; so much so that until 2011, Bashar al-Assad was making a number of well publicised efforts to move closer to the West. In the end, the civil war was what pushed the two old allies into one another’s arms for a romantic embrace worthy of any epic movie. What was once at best a neglected Cold War-era relationship reminiscent of Libya and Cuba suddenly transformed into the new centre of gravity in Russia’s quest to reassert its place in the international system. Since then, Russia has been a key ally of the Syrian regime, supplying them with the weapons necessary to keep fighting the rebels as well as the advisory support needed to operate and maintain their more advanced weapons and equipment. It was Russia that went to bat for Syria on the UN Security Council and it was Russia that ultimately prevailed when intervention seemed certain back in September.
At the end of the day, Russia is playing its game in Syria as if it were a Cold War proxy conflict, minus the actual strategic imperative. It has identified Syria as a key ally in the Middle East as well as an important strategic location by virtue of their naval base at Tartus. Of course, this strategy remains largely counterintuitive; Assad has successfully alienated every government in the Middle East except Iran, a point that has caused severe harm to Russia’s reputation within the region. Furthermore, the Russian base at Tartus, in spite of the alleged renovations, by all accounts remains a decrepit, undermanned and underfunded naval base, whose personnel can be counted in the tens and whose docks remain largely incapable of housing any major Russian surface combatant. This is not to say that Russia has no interests in Syria, but its insistence on participating in the civil war has undoubtedly taken its toll on what concrete goals it actually had. The lion’s share of Russia’s interests there lay in its ability to make expensive arms purchases and be a potential destination for Russian investment; both of which were largely nullified by the civil war. Therefore, any strategic arguments put forth by Moscow to justify involvement in Syria are fundamentally unsatisfactory. Ultimately, Syria’s primary value to Russia seems to lie more in the opportunities it offers for Russia to assert itself as a major power against the West and engage in Cold War-style nostalgia. After all, Tartus may not be a particularly important port, but it is the last overseas naval base that Russia has left and it was once a key symbol of Soviet naval power.
Of course, while Russia seems to be fighting a proxy war in Syria, strangely it seems to be the only one doing so (admittedly, there has also been Saudi and Qatari involvement in Syria, both of which have been providing limited arms shipments and some financial support to the opposition). The United States and Europe, who could provide the weapons necessary to turn the tide in Syria, have been conspicuously absent. Indeed, most Western governments have been downright uninterested in the idea of providing arms to the Syrian rebels. It took almost two years for the United States to send body armour and medical supplies to the opposition. Furthermore, even though the US administration has sent weapons to Syria, it has restricted itself almost entirely to small arms and light weapons (though no SAM’s); weapons which would do little to affect the ultimate outcome. Given the hesitancy of Western governments to get involved even in a limited sense in Syria, this would suggest that only half of this new Cold War seems to be willing to fight it.
In a way, this shouldn’t be all that surprising. As far as the West is concerned, the Cold War has been over for a long time and is a period that most would prefer to forget about rather than reminisce over. The fear that Russia once inspired in the minds of policymakers has largely disappeared, replaced with a mixture of fear for new threats as well as bemusement over Russia’s attempts to revive the conflict. Indeed, Russia’s policy in Syria of supporting what is left of Assad’s once unified regime is in the long term such a self-destructive cause that one cannot help but understand Western restraint on this issue. By betting on a deck as bad as Assad’s, Russia is hurting its long term viability to remain an influential force in the Middle East; all this at no cost to the West, who frankly were never that peeved with Russia’s existing presence in the region to begin with. By insisting on fighting a war that has lost much of its strategic rationale, Russia may gain some visibility, but its fundamental inability to sustain such a commitment will only hurt what is left of its credibility.
Thus, while my characterisation of this Cold War in the title is somewhat facetious, it nonetheless explains much of what is going on in the Syrian proxy war. This is a classic bad sequel, made on a low budget with a fraction of the scope of the original, featuring only some of the original main cast and none of the people who profited most from the original instalment. When it was released, it had little relevance to most of the critics, who instead preferred to focus on other, more relevant titles like: Islamic Terrorism or Inter-ethnic Disputes. And in the end, like all bad sequels, this one will gradually end in disaster, with the remaining cast having what’s left of their careers blasted by their performance in a bad production and their insistence on holding onto a franchise that should have been put out to pasture years ago. The fact that Russia cannot keep this up forever may be of little comfort to the Syrian people, but it does at least offer some hope that, in the long run, the Cold War dichotomy of Russia versus the West may finally be slipping into irrelevance. Maybe this time it will stay dead.