Since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the already volatile Russian state has become increasingly unpredictable and confrontational, especially towards the United States (US) and NATO. Although seemingly inexplicable, the combination of suspected cyberwarfare, provocative missile placements, and increasingly belligerent rhetoric can be attributed to an overly ambitious, and more significantly, opportunistic Moscow.
The hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) servers in July marked the beginning of the recent escalation with the leaking of 20,000 emails which prompted the resignation of the DNC Chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, as well as threatened to derail Hillary Clinton’s now-failed presidential campaign. The Clinton campaign and some US officials accused the Kremlin-linked hacking group FancyBear of carrying out the attacks. This implied the Kremlin was trying to influence the race for the White House.
The Russians then allegedly handed over a number of Hillary Clinton’s private emails to the website WikiLeaks on 7 October in another attempt to disrupt her campaign. Her opponent, Donald Trump, previously expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin’s style of leadership. This act could be perceived as the Russian president trying to reciprocate the gesture. Many believe Clinton would have been far more assertive in standing up to Russia’s geopolitical maneuvering, so it is difficult to avoid drawing the conclusion that Putin has a vested interest in damaging Clinton’s profile.
The Kremlin does not seem to have limited itself to just this sphere. Russia’s decision on 3 October to withdraw from its 2000 treaty with the US, which guaranteed the disposal of weapons-grade plutonium, was unprecedented. The fact that Putin himself said Russia had to pull out of the treaty because of ‘the threat to strategic stability posed by the hostile actions of the US against Russia’ should set alarm bells ringing for those who believed the dichotomous Cold War époque is a thing of the past.
The Russian civilian authorities then conducted a drill from 4-7 October in a Moscow district that allegedly involved over 40 million civilians from schools, factories and offices. Those in question were being given instructions on what to do in the case of nuclear, chemical or bacteriological war. On 10 October the governor of St Petersburg increased the grain reserves of the city to up to 20 days worth and the next day the Kremlin called for all government officials to bring home their relatives living abroad. It is not difficult to feel a sense of unease.
Further from that, Dmitry Kiselev, a TV journalist with close ties to the Kremlin, threatened the west with the use of nuclear weapons. The leader of the ultranationalist party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, declared the election of Clinton would lead to World War III. These are the final brush strokes to this image of a potentially militarily active Russia.
Rhetoric and domestic posturing are not the only contributions to an intimidating picture in the East. As well as moving its modified S-300 antimissile and anti-aircraft system into Syria, Russia recently released images of its new RS-28 Intercontinental Ballistic missile that can carry up to sixteen warheads. According to the official TV channel of the Defence Ministry, Zvesda, the missiles can carry enough munition to destroy an area ‘the size of Texas or France.’
Abroad, Moscow is working to re-open former military bases in Vietnam and Cuba that were closed in 2002. On 28 October, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed his country’s continuing support for the relentless bombardment of Aleppo in a meeting with Syria and Iran, despite condemnation from the West.
When these actions are viewed alongside the recent modernisation of Russia’s land and air units, the deployments of the navy to the Baltic Sea, nuclear-capable missiles sent to Crimea, and the vital strategic enclave of Kaliningrad, an undeniable pattern emerges. It is one which points to a Russia that is increasingly active in looking to exert itself on the world stage.
The reason why this is happening is unclear. The deputy head of the Centre for Political Technologies Aleksei Makarkin believes it is a question of power and pride as ‘Russians dream about another Yalta conference, where together with other great powers it will divide the map.’ But this ignores the question of timing.
The more pertinent question to ask, however, is why now? Makarkin is correct, but he ignores the role that inaction plays in facilitating Russian aggression. President Obama currently holds a fragile position. He is coming to the end of his second term in office, so he has limited scope for action. Long-term solutions are not an option and thus he is consigned to short-term, even reactionary possibilities. His lame-duck status prevents him from harnessing enough support to commit American military power to react to Russia’s actions, especially in Syria.
The Russians know the US is trapped and Putin is seizing the opportunity to act with a free pass. The risks of serious repercussions from the West are almost negligible and he knows this because we have been here before. In 2008, towards the end of Bush’s administration, Russia invaded Georgia and annexed parts of South Ossetia and Abkhazia with few meaningful consequences. Although only a handful of states recognise the regions as independent states, the episode demonstrated Russia’s return as a regional power with which NATO was not prepared to engage militarily. That incident has set a precedent that the Russians are ready to follow, highlighted by the annexation of Crimea in 2014. As long as NATO is propped up by the Americans the West will struggle to co-ordinate a substantial response to the alleged cyber-hacks, the bombardment of Aleppo, the transport of nuclear weapons to strategically vital areas of Europe, and the rhetorical scaremongering. This doesn’t amount to Russia preparing itself for war, simply the lifelong opportunist Putin is continuing to make gains on the world stage whilst the US is in limbo.