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Cold War II? Russia and the US in Syria

The civil war in Syria is creating a Russia-US divide that could push the countries into a second Cold War. The US faces many threats abroad but none have yet surpassed the threat of her former nemesis, Russia, the core of the former-Soviet giant. Today’s Russia is in many ways more of a proliferation threat than a direct threat. Civil war in Syria is now proving this point. The conflict in Syria has become the latest battle-ground for a US-Russia standoff that harkens back to the Cold War-era proxy wars. As Syria drops further and further into civil war, the divide deepens between the US and Russia. Relations are becoming more and more strained.

In 2007 and 2008, the US and Russia faced off over a proposed US missile defense system to be installed in Poland and the Czech Republic. The purpose of these weapons would be to protect US interests from “rogue” states, particularly Iran. A furious Russia responded saying that the system would have the potential for use as an offensive weapon. Russia promised to respond by aiming missiles at numerous points in Europe. Putin himself spoke of the rise of a second Cold War around the potential missile crisis. The US under Obama eventually backed off, however, and scrapped the plan in favor of US warship-based defense system. Russia approved and the crisis was avoided.

In recent months, the Republicans have accused Obama of enabling Russian behavior and backing down from conflicts. In a recent meeting with former president Medvedev, Obama was taped communicating that he would have more flexibility in bargaining after the election. Regardless of these accusations and promises, high-level diplomacy will play a part in this Syrian controversy, influencing issues while at a distance from the conflict on the ground.

The reality on the ground is slightly different than the strategic accusations being made by the US and Russia. There is spreading civil war in Syria which may fragment the country. In spite of dogged Russian denials, there is overwhelming evidence that Russia is supplying Assad’s forces with billions of dollars of military equipment, most recently in the form of attack helicopters. Russia denies that these arms and munitions are to be used on peaceful demonstrators but, even if that statement is true, they say nothing of those demonstrators considered to be non-peaceful by the current regime.

It is worth noting that Russia’s only military base on the Mediterranean Sea is in Syria. Syria is, to a large extent, Russia’s largest sphere of influence in an area so recently dominated by Western power and influence. A new Syria may play into the hands of the West and wipe away Russia’s foothold in the region. This is another reason for Russia’s increasing support for a globally unpopular Assad.

Aside from strategic interests, Russian nationalism is on the rise and is influencing her foreign policy. Putin ran on a strong anti-America campaign. “They want vassals, not allies” he has stated, speaking of America. From Russia’s perspective, American foreign policy crowds them out and limits their ability to act. Russia has critiqued US and European interventionism as encroachments into state sovereignty. By supporting the Syrian government, Russia is claiming to make the statement that state sovereignty is more important than the priorities and interests of the US, the EU, or the UN. Russia is claiming that each state should decide for itself its own government and destiny, with, of course, Russian arms to help them reach their decision.

The G20 talks in Mexico between Obama and Putin will, to a small extent, shape the future of US-Russia relations. Obama sought to “reset” relations with Russia as he entered office. This, however, has proven difficult. Today’s Russia is, as far as foreign policy is concerned, the same Russia from 2008. The Obama administration is learning that the US still has to deal with the same Russia with or without a diplomatic “reset.” This Russia is unhappy with American foreign policy and is willing to befriend America’s enemies, most notably Iran and North Korea. This meeting will shape the foreign policy discussions in the months leading to the US presidential election in November. While the election is a variable, whoever is in office in 2013 will still deal with the same issues.

Either way, US-Russia relations could sour due to the Syrian conflict and create a situation reminiscent of the Cold War.  This Cold War, however, would not be situated around the threat of assured mutual destruction and the spread of communism, but around strategic regional interests. These strategic regional interests would center around regional influence that would secure for each power natural resources, trade deals, and exclusive access to countries or regions.

The two strategies pursued by each country in this race would be just as different from one another as they were in the 1960s. Russia is one of the most corrupt countries when it comes to foreign investments and business. They are one of the most likely countries to give bribes for contracts and strategic access points. This new sort of Cold War would create a new playing field for the confused hybrid that is the Russian business world and the Russian mob. Similar to Chinese involvement in sub-Saharan Africa, Russian offensives would involve bribing government officials in order to gain access to natural resources or other strategic points.

The US, on the other hand, has a demonstrated and predictable foreign policy centered around the ideals of popular democracy and principled free markets. These ideals can be (and often are) compromised when unable to achieve results. As a rule, however, proper and ethical action is the norm of American involvement around the globe. The US seeks to cultivate trade relationships with developing countries in ways that benefit both countries and often heavily favor the developing country.

The UN will also serve as a battle ground for the two states as it did during the Cold War. With permanent positions on the Security Council and in all other assemblies of importance, the two countries inevitably oppose the strategic moves of the other within the given UN committee. The UN was one of the first sites of an international face-off concerning Syria. As the conflict continues, the UN will continue in its capacity as a forum for international dialogue as well as a battleground US-Russian diplomatic skirmishes.

It has not yet been demonstrated how these foreign policies influence the developed and developing world. The winner of this war, however, will be the country that wins the scramble for the resources of Africa, South America, and the Middle East. The US and the EU have a head start on Russia but Russia has declared itself prepared to pursue and overtake her old foes. The conflict in Syria and the failing diplomatic attempts between the countries may be setting the stage for Round 2. The US cannot rest on her laurels and her lead of 1-0 over Russia. The US must actively pursue a foreign policy that counters Russia’s attempts to assert its force across the globe.

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Michael Brooks

Michael Brooks

Michael Brooks is an OSINT researcher and OODA Analyst and with a background in international development and security across Central Africa and the Middle East. Currently based in Berlin, Germany, he holds a BA in International Policy from Patrick Henry College and a Masters in International Security from the University of St. Andrews.