By Alexander Stringer
In December, I wrote an opinion column in The Diplomatic Envoy that outlined the parallels of the Russian intervention in Syria, then in its early stages, to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. For the sake of brevity, it overlooked a wide range of Russian actions that further imply that the government of President Vladimir V. Putin is trying to inject new life into the Cold War.
When Mikhail Gorbachev resigned his post as president in December 1991, marking the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation was pushed out of the inner circle of diplomacy. While Russia retained its Permanent Five seat on the Security Council, its large economy, and its nuclear arsenal, the nation was far too busy reconfiguring domestic politics to maintain a heavy influence in the international scene.
As President Putin cements himself as the utmost authority in Russia and settles domestic disputes, the world bears witness to a Russian state now ready and able to return to its former mantle of power.
And Putin has made it clear that the biggest obstacle to Russia’s climb is the United States – in a 2007 speech, he said that there is currently “one single center of power. One single center of force. One single center of decision making. This is the world of one master, one sovereign.”
To Putin, a unipolar world is acceptable, but not with the United States as its hegemon. He has fervently decried the United States’ use of military power abroad, and has employed many means to destabilize United States dominance.
The strategy for Russian dominance is simple, coming straight out of Putin’s handbook from his time as an agent for the K.G.B. First, Russia must re-establish dominion in the former Soviet republics, and keep them from leaning toward the West. Then, with Russia’s borders secured, he can once again open lines of espionage around the world, mainly in the West, to better understand his modernized enemy. Finally, with the proverbial line drawn in the sand, and intelligence acquired, it would then be possible to sever ties between the West and Eastern bloc by providing an alternative to the West’s capitalist, liberal democratic ideology.
Reining in the Former Soviet Bloc
While the armed conflict between Ukrainians and pro-Russian separatists in Crimea and Donbass is the most recent display of Russian interference, the Kremlin’s ambition to bring former Soviet republics back into its fold was apparent from the invasion of Georgia in 2008. Since the Republic of Georgia declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian troops have been continually sent into the nascent state.
For much of the 1990s , these troops acted as peacekeeping forces. In the wake of independence, Georgia saw two regions attempt to secede, and in an attempt to stop the uprisings, Georgia joined the Commonwealth of Independent States, an organization that formed after the fall of the Soviet Union. Through the organization, the Georgian government was able to request Russia’s help quelling the rebellion, which the Kremlin obliged.
Russia built several military bases in Georgia, and the relationship seemed amicable until the Rose Revolution in 2003, when President Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia, a former Soviet foreign minister, was ousted by protesters and replaced by a pro-Western administration. Putin pulled his troops from Georgia, leading to several years of instability when the separatist movements resurged.
Unrest in Georgia has been beneficial for Russia, according to the Brookings Institution –under the guise of peacekeepers, Russian troops returned to maintain ports on the Georgian coast for the Black Sea Fleet. In addition, domestic conflict renders it impossible for Georgia to find sources of oil and gas, other than Russia.
In the wake of the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, when Russian forces backing the separatists in South Ossetia crossed into Georgia proper, belligerence between the two states made life difficult for Georgians. The pro-Western party that led the Rose Revolution was replaced by a party willing to re-establish relations with Moscow, at the cost of moving away from NATO and becoming a cautionary tale to other Eastern European states.
Reviving the K.G.B. Under the Radar
When Edward Snowden fled to Russia after revealing the National Security Agency’s programs to monitor the American public, many news agencies asked if he was a Russian spy, planted to create turmoil in the United States. While these allegations have since died down, they brought to light something interesting about the reawakening bear: Given President Putin’s time in the K.G.B., a massive overhaul and budget increase for the intelligence sector would naturally follow.
Former K.G.B. officers comprise 78 percent of Putin’s government, The Economist estimates, and they have all supported reviving the spy agency under its new name, the Federal Security Service (known as F.S.B. from its Russian initials). This powerhouse, which serves as the head agency in the Ministry of Security, ordered the arrests or bans of international journalists during the Sochi Olympics.
Internationally, a number of Western nations point to the F.S.B. for harassing anti-Putin expatriates who have fled Russia. Relations between Russia and the United Kingdom have broken down during Putin’s rule, especially over the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy, in 2006. That Mr. Litvinenko had been killed after defecting was seen as a violation of British sovereignty.
Russia remains king in the war of information, where the best possible tactic is creating false leads. For example, after the tragic crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 that claimed the lives of 298 people when it mysteriously fell from the sky on July 17, 2014, the Russian government released dozens of conflicting reports about their official findings.
The reports included the claim repeated by the state-owned Channel One News that the plane was flown by CIA operatives carrying almost 300 corpses to be shot down by the Ukrainian government. Other state-run news media took up the claim, broadcasting what they said were satellite photos obtained from the United States, showing a fighter jet flying toward the plane.
Other reports alleged that a Russian soldier loading missiles into a truck accidentally fired one into the air, perfectly hitting a plane at cruising altitude, that Ukrainian rebels used shoulder-mounted weaponry to take down the plane, and that the crash was a suicide mission by the pilots to slander Russia.
This sort of disinformation is not exclusive to the Malaysian Airlines crash, but a usual tactic for the Russian Federation to keep the truth in a liquid state and the nation uninvolved in dubious activities. It has effectively allowed Russia to maintain intelligence on other states that are willing to share information, while foreign counterparts run in circles chasing down false leads.
Reducing Reliance on the West
The ideological fault line of the Cold War was the division between East and West. The fall of the Soviet Union seemed to confirm that West is best, with the world embracing capitalism and democracy, leading to global growth and interdependent economies.
Putin’s Russia challenges that foregone conclusion. Since the invasion of Crimea, Russia and the West have engaged in sanction battles that the news media have dubbed the “Cheese Wars.” The Kremlin took a hardline stance against the smuggling of Western food, burying or incinerating confiscated foodstuffs from the United States and the European Union, and arresting smuggling rings carrying the “dangerous” contraband.
Besides cheese, the government has seized other parts of the food pyramid imported from most of the European Union, the United States, Australia, Canada, and Norway since August 2014. A year after this first round of bans, Russia began to burn flowers imported from the Netherlands. (193 Dutch citizens had died onboard Malaysian Airlines Flight 17.)
Whenever smugglers are caught and their goods seized, the state-run news media is quick to broadcast the most popular form of destruction, bulldozing, to reinforce the stance of the government: Russia has no need of Western influence or products. While cheese, goose, and wagyu beef are delicious, consuming these products creates an addiction to Western goods, in the eyes of the government.
Russia was already facing a food shortage in 2015 when the sanctions were renewed for another year, with most shortages occurring in the confiscated food groups, causing price hikes and public outcry against the wasteful destruction of food. But the government has declined to respond to numerous petitions for the confiscated food to be redistributed from the wealthy to the needy.
The reason behind this silence is simple: Food sanctions damage public opinion about the West more than the Kremlin.
It seems that the Cold War never truly died, but that the Russian bear only went into hibernation to assess its damages.