Russian Posturing Threatens to Engulf us All

Eurofighter Typhoons of the Royal Air Force (RAF) have intercepted two Russian bombers heading for UK airspace, a 12-mile extension from the British coastline that the Russians have threatened to violate six times in the past year.

A Typhoon intercepts a Russian Tu-160 'Blackjack' bomber in September 2015
A Typhoon intercepts a Russian Tu-160 ‘Blackjack’ bomber in September 2015

The incident, and others like it, have been interpreted as a sign of Russia ‘flexing its muscles’ and ‘using these tactics to poke us in the chest’, rather than anything more provocative. However, such incursions have become increasingly common across Europe and further afield in recent months as President Putin’s minions seek to send a strong message that Russia will not be cowed by the supposed international coalition taking umbrage at its assertive foreign policy.

The shooting down of a Russian military jet that violated Turkish air space in November last year has created a seemingly unsolvable diplomatic spat between the two states, both of which will play a crucial role in any resolution of the Syrian crisis.

Indeed, the adventurousness – some would say rashness – of Russia’s recent aerial incursions are more reminiscent of Cold War-era posturing than many analysts would like to admit. This is particularly so given that Russia acts with fury any time another state is deemed as having undermined its own sovereignty.

Turks have protested Russia's involvement in the Syrian Civil War
Turks have protested Russia’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War

Such needless risk-taking and antagonistic attitudes amongst the Kremlin hierarchy opens up the potential for accidents. Nobody will forget the destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014 which, whilst highly unlikely to have been sanctioned by Moscow, was a direct consequence of Russia’s support for pro-separatist rebels in Eastern Ukraine.

Likewise, nobody has forgotten the day that a Russian missile took out Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in September 1983, after the pilot had accidentally entered Russian air space.

The Russians have a history of paranoia and belligerency, a toxic mix in any global situation. They do not tolerate breaches of their territorial integrity, so why should they expect other states to be more tolerant when it comes to their own violations?

The incident with Turkey will be repeated and the worry is that it may involve more than a two-seat fighter jet. Reports of near-misses between Russian and American planes in Syria abound and the increasing anxiety amongst some of NATO’s eastern states – particularly those in the Baltic region – regarding Russian aggression could lead to a fatal miscalculation.

Scaremongering is, of course, to be avoided at all costs because this will only increase anxiety and mistrust between states over Russia’s potential future actions. However, analysts must accept that we are moving into an era with more in common with the Cold War than they may like to admit; crises of sovereignty, proxy wars, diplomatic breakdown and foolhardy rhetoric. This has come to define today.

The downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 heightened already-alarming Cold War tensions
The downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 heightened already-alarming Cold War tensions

Global leaders need to take Russian threats seriously, however seemingly innocuous. Otherwise the next international disaster will be just around the corner and what it may spark…God only knows.

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Putin Increasingly Detached from Reality as he Listens to his Inner Rasputin

Vladimir Putin has failed to use the shooting-down of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 to exert pressure on the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine to lay down their weapons. Rather, his administration has continually tried to place the blame for the MH17 incident on the Ukrainian government in Kiev, whilst allowing artillery and troop movements across the Russian border into the separatist camps.

The shrapnel-pocked fuselage of MH17 - proof of the pro-Russian separatists guilt
The shrapnel-pocked fuselage of MH17 – proof of the pro-Russian separatists guilt

Putin’s claims of a ‘smear campaign’ against Russia organised by the USA show his increasing detachment from reality. His bullying tactics have long won him internal control within the Russian Federation and scored him several successes in Eastern Europe (think Georgia, Crimea, eastern Ukraine).

Yet the international outrage caused by the rocket attack on MH17, and the Russian leader’s refusal to accept any culpability, show a worrying disdain for peace. The selfish intentions of the European nations that rely on the Russian economy will not persist forever, and the potential for conventional ground forces to be sent to Ukraine by the West has become a possibility that just a month ago seemed impossible.

Putin, simply, sees himself as a god. His words, his whims, rule all manner of reason. In this way he differs from the infamous Grigory Rasputin, whose control over Russian politics in the build-up to and early years of WWI are as legendary as Putin’s actions will become in history. The Siberian mystic claimed himself as a transmitter of God’s will, his miracle cures a manifestation of divine intervention.

Rasputin won favour with the Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra by his apparent ability to ‘cure’ the symptoms of the Tsarevich Alexis’ hemophilia. As the only male heir to the throne, the well-being of Alexis was everything. Through a mixture of hypnosis, cunning, pure coincidence and blind ignorance on the part of the Tsars, Rasputin succeeded in creating the impression that only he, through his mystical connection with God, could assure Alexis’ safety.

The 'Mad Monk' who came to dominate Russian politics during WWI
The ‘Mad Monk’ who came to dominate Russian politics during WWI

Rasputin may have a been a debauched alcoholic but he was also an effective showman and he attracted a large group of followers wherever he travelled. Putin likes to portray himself as a sober fitness fanatic, yet the frequent images of him bare-chested in the Russian mountains or scissor-kicking an opponent during a judo competition are similarly cultish. Indeed, one only need look at the Nashi youth movement in Russia to see the cult of personality Putin has developed.

Such a status that both Rasputin and Putin developed for themselves rubs off on the political establishment and allows a degree of control unimaginable in any democracy. Even so, there is a lesson to be learnt from history.

The way in which Rasputin came to influence the Tsarina during the Tsar’s absence at the Front during WWI became increasingly alarming for both the Russian aristocracy and peasantry. Ministerial appointments, elections to the Synod, even troop movements were controlled by the erratic proclamations and suggestions of ‘Our Friend’, as the Tsarina affectionately termed her mystic. Rasputin’s murder at the Yusupov Palace in December 1916 had been a long-time coming, the disproportionate influence he wielded in the palace alienating nearly everyone around him.

If Vladimir Putin continues to drive Russia towards a deadly confrontation with the West, his political supporters and the people at large may start questioning his own ‘divine’ traits more vociferously. Another eruption of the pro-democracy movements seen in recent years, coupled with political defections and economic contraction might see his infallibility challenged.

Russia's saviour on horseback - the Putin myth is slipping
Russia’s saviour on horseback – the Putin myth is slipping

 

Corruption (in political dealings and within the mind) will not go unnoticed forever. Putin is running out of time to ensure his supremacy on the Russian throne. Without reining in the separatists in Ukraine and allowing a European war to develop, even the timid Western powers will fight back.

He may not end up bullet-riddled in the Malaya Nevka River but Putin’s belligerence could well see his political death much sooner than people anticipated.