This week the world mourns the victims of the IS (“Islamic State”) attacks on Paris. Meanwhile, seemingly as proof of the degree to which Ukraine is peripheral to global public opinion, the resurgent conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas goes unnoticed (as do the recent bombings in Beirut). In Ukraine, news broadcasts reported intensified artillery and small-arms fire along the entire length of the front in the east. Apparently the “separatists” (aka Russian mercenaries and “military advisors” from the Russian Federation) have resumed shelling of Ukrainian army positions from tanks, and supposedly withdrawn (according to the Minsk/Paris accords) heavy artillery. News broadcasts have reported 7 dead and 8 injured among Ukraine’s defenders.
My previous “Thoughts” have been described by some as “analytical”, but by many others as “long” and/or “alarmist.” If you feel the latter labels are appropriate, stop reading now – you won’t enjoy the text anyway… Incidentally, the label “alarmist” was first applied to me after a series of articles I posted in March-April 2014 in which I tried to warn anyone who would listen that Putin’s aggression in Crimea and the Donbas were not a limited action, but part of a much broader expansionist strategy. Later, in October 2014, I warned of the possibility of aerial bombardments of Kyiv, and even though US General Breedlove (Supreme Allied Commander, Europe) reiterated the same warning several days later, the “alarmist” label stuck to me, not him. So now, I’m gun shy: in this article I’ll present scenarios rather than predictions. I am not Vladimir Putin’s psychotherapist, and so have no idea what course of action his sick mind will decide to take up in the immediate future. I also have no doubt that rational choice is not a forte of the Russian President – at least not the same way “rationality” is understood by most intelligent people educated in a post-Enlightenment western paradigm. Nevertheless, he has made his intentions clear in several public addresses, and has backed these up with action – alas few have listened…
As I write these words, my Facebook newsfeed is filled with speculation written by Ukrainians searching for a “Russian trace” in the Paris attacks. Although I am generally warry of conspiracy theories, the logic of several of these posts gives one pause. Take for example, the list of rhetorical propositions presented by Ukrainian journalist Vitaliy Haydukevych who asks “whose interests are served by the Paris attacks?”
1) In the wake of an IS attack on Paris, anti-Islamic sentiment in France (and Euroskepticism in other EU member states) inevitably will rise, likely to the political benefit of the radical right.
2) The universally accepted notion of Europe as being secure and prosperous has been shaken – particularly among those in Eastern Europe (e.g. eastern and central Ukraine) who have become recent converts to the cause of Euro-integration.
3) The French security apparatus (apparently) knew that a terrorist threat existed, but were powerless to avert the attacks – this meme is particularly popular among Russian media outlets, coupled with the message “don’t travel outside of Russia, it’s not safe.”
4) In the span of the past 2 weeks IS has attacked both the French and the Russians (downing the MetroJet flight over Egypt). Apparently their terrorist threat is universal, and an alliance between Paris and Moscow in the war in Syria will be a logical consequence (BTW: allies don’t impose economic sanctions on one another).
Incidentally, the Russian MP and political analysts Sergey Markov (believed to have Putin’s ear) posted several messages on his FB page today calling upon France to now lead a “global anti-terrorist coalition, with the participation of the US and Russia, to crush the IS terrorist threat in Syria, Iraq and Lybia.” As an aside Markov urges the West to urgently end its conflict with Russia over Ukraine, to “replace the (Kyiv) junta with a technocratic government, rewrite (Ukraine’s) Constitution… The Kyiv junta is one of the main obstacles to joint action by the US, EU and Russia against terrorism.” No mention of Crimea – obviously.
At the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi on 22 October 2015, Markov’s paradigm was formalized by Vladimir Putin, who reminded his audience that during his previous speech at the UN General Assembly on 28 September (3 days before the start of Russian aerial sorties in Syria), the Russian President called for the creation of a global anti-terrorist coalition, “but our American partners ignored this proposal.” According to Putin, the only way to ensure victory over Islamic terrorism is for the US, EU and Russia to view each other as allies against a common enemy. Furthermore (Markov’s words are clearly an echo of the boss’s thoughts): without the direct involvement of the US and Europe, finding a resolution to the conflict in the Donbas will not be possible – Kyiv is not prepared to change its constitution without external pressure.
And so we return to the perennial question: what is Putin after? If only people would listen – he’s quite clear in his statements. Take the following quotes from the Russian President’s Valdai address (Oct 22, 2015):
1) “Competition between states is a natural condition in geopolitics”
2) “In the modern world, unipolarity is not healthy”
3) “The US treats its European allies as one would treat vassals, punishing European companies for violating sanctions regime against Russia”
4) “American strategists understand fully that their missile defense system (in Europe) is aimed at neutralizing Russia’s nuclear capabilities – therefore at reducing the geopolitical power of Russia. This is precisely why Russia sees the NATO missile defense system as a threat. If one country puts up a nuclear umbrella and protects itself against nuclear threats, then that country will be free to use its power to pursue its interests anywhere through any means.”
5) “Russia and the West have different civilizational worldviews” (answer to question alluding to Huntingdon’s classic work). Apparently, the West is pragmatic whereas Russia’s “soul” is idealistic. And incidentally, “I don’t see the Russians and Ukrainians as separate people’s” said Putin.
From the above, one can deduce: a) Putin wants to return Russia to its “rightful” position as a global superpower – a balance/alternative to US global hegemony; b) Russia’s nuclear arsenal is a key instrument of the Kremlin’s geopolitical ambitions, and anything that threatens the perpetuation of the Cold War doctrine of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) is seen as a direct threat to Russia’s geopolitical interests; c) In order to (re)establish Russia’s “rightful” place (and in order to formalize his “sphere of influence”), Putin craves a “new Yalta” – a meeting between the US and Russia (possibly with the participation of China) aimed at carving up the globe.
During the Valdai discussion Putin (apparently) digressed from his prepared remarks during the Q&A, and recalled having recently read archived transcripts of conversations held in 1990 between a former leader of the German Social-Democrats and the Soviet leadership on the eve of unification. According to the Russian President, during the taped conversation, the German politician bemoaned the fact that the two sides had not “decided the fate of Europe” prior to unification, pointing out to his Soviet interlocutors that the lack of a deal between the new/old great powers would lead to continued conflict on the continent.
Having watched a video of Putin’s performance at the Valdai Discussion Club 3 weeks ago, having then observed the extremely muted reaction to the bombing of Metrojet Flight 9268 over the Sinai Desert a mere 9 days later, and now having watched the Kremlin’s rapid response to the IS terrorist attacks on Paris, I am beginning to give some credence to the conspiracy theorists who would find a trace of the Russian President behind every recent incident of violence on or near the European continent. In Sochi, Putin ominously declared: “There’s one thing I learned in my youth on the streets of Leningrad: if a fight is unavoidable, one should hit first.” Is this exactly what he has been doing lately?
Tonight, volunteers embedded with the Ukrainian Army’s 53rd brigade near Avdiyivka (the closest point on the front line to the city of Donetsk) report intense fighting with the use of heavy artillery by both sides – apparently Ukrainian forces quickly brought their equipment forward to the conflict line in response to an intense enemy attack on their defensive positions. Are the “separatists” simply taking advantage of the world being distracted by the Paris bombings, or are we witnessing an expansion of Russia’s theater of operations? Putin can’t fight a war on two fronts (i.e. both in Syria and Ukraine) simultaneously can he?
In the long term (I am convinced), this question will matter little – except to historians. For those (like me) who believe World War Three began with the annexation of Crimea, and that it will end with the disintegration of Russia (along the lines of WWI beginning in the provincial city of Sarajevo, but resulting in the disintegration of the Hapsburg Empire), the Paris bombings, tonight’s escalation in the Donbas, and the inevitable intensification of military action in Syria – inevitably to be followed by more IS bombings in the West in the future– are all events in a continuous narrative that humanity has been dragged into by a little madman in the Kremlin.
Clearly IS is an autonomous actor in this war, but as was the case in previous global conflicts, adversarial lines are rarely two-dimensional – Russia is an antagonist for whom the destruction of US hegemony and a weakened EU are means to its own perceived (re)assertion as a global actor, and for whom the use of IS terrorists as instruments for achieving these goals is an absolutely legitimate strategy of geopolitical realpolitik. For those of us in Europe this is a somewhat uncomfortable position. However, to seek comfort in an alliance with one’s ultimate enemy would clearly be shortsighted.