“The Russian public has a foolishly high tolerance for civilian casualties,” says Alexander Titov, a professor from Queen’s University in Belfast who specializes in modern European history. “Much higher than the west. It’s much easier for it to understand the issue of Islamic terrorism because of some homegrown problems in North Caucasus.”
Referring to bloody conflicts spanning from the 1990s to the 2000s, Titov points out a factor often overlooked in western speculation of Vladimir Putin’s actions: his own country’s context.
Quick to assume any move by Russia is a sign of trying to “bring back the USSR,” domestic issues such as the Islamist extremism in Chechnya and Dagestan often get overlooked in the west. In fact, Chechens have become favorite recruits for Isis and Al Quaeda. With extremist training and Russian passports, they pose a looming threat in Putin’s backyard – one which his people expect him to deal with.
Not unreasonably, recent conflicts in Ukraine and the annexation of Crime have brought back fears of a more aggressive Russia. But with NATO at its borders and a weakening economy due to sanctions and cheap oil, how high is the risk of a new Cold War in reality?
“Putin’s foreign policy has always been pragmatic and hardly ideological,” says Agne Cepinskyte, a researcher at King’s College London focusing on ‘Geopolitics and National Minorities Abroad: Weimar Germany’s and Post-Soviet Russia’s Policies towards the Baltic States.’
“Therefore, despite him declaring a decade ago that the collapse of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century, the idea of restoring the USSR in a straighforward sense is not a real foreign policy goal.”
On the other hand, Bill Browder, author of “Red Notice: How I Became Putin’s no 1 Enemy,” recently wrote for Prospect magazine that Putin’s actions in Syria may be nothing more than a tactic to get the western sanctions lifted. He speculates that Putin’s strategy is to make the refugee crisis so much worse, the west will have no choice but to give up Ukraine. “Putin presents a self-confident facade to the world, publishing videos of his workout routine and touting his supposed 89 per cent approval rating, but the reality is that he is in a state of raw panic. Russia’s economic crisis is accelerating,” he wrote.
Alexander Titov, on the other hand, may disagree. He believes that the increased level of collaboration between the west and Russia after the Paris attacks may offer a broader strategy in regards to Ukraine, but “it won’t have direct relevance. It has a dynamic of its own, I think.”
The downing of the warplane by Turkey is another issue which complicates things. In a reactionary move, Russia has imposed sanctions on one of its biggest trading partners. At the same time, these two nations have a complicated history due to Turkey harboring people Russia deemed as terrorists during the aforementioned conflicts in Chechnya. To hear it from Putin himself:
“We remember that the militants who operated in the North Caucasus in the 1990s and 2000s found refuge and received moral and material assistance in Turkey. We still find them there… We will never forget their collusion with terrorists. We have always deemed betrayal the worst and most shameful thing to do, and that will never change. I would like them to remember this – those in Turkey who shot our pilots in the back, those hypocrites who tried to justify actions and cover up terrorists.”
Russia sees the event as an attack on its well being, and Putin must show his people what he is willing to do in that case scenario.
The same goes for Turkey, which, as Titov points out, “wanted to make a strong statement to Russia to sort of mind its own business [and] consider Turkish interests.”
“Turkey was very unhappy with the way things were going in the Vienna talks,” continues Titov. “Particularly the issue of who it backs. The west was moving towards Russia’s position, kind of prioritizing the fight against Islamic State and leaving this fate of Assad to one side to deal after the IS has been dealt with. That really is unacceptable to Turkey because for Turkey IS is kind of way down the priority list of its concerns. Its top concerns are the Kurds and second on top of that is the Assad regime.”
Simultaneously, in a global context, failures in the Middle East by the United States have left an open spot on the world stage for a new world power to exert its will. As American political influence decreases, Russia’s rises. As Mike Whitney pointed out recently: “Putin doesn’t divide terrorists into good terrorists and bad terrorists, moderate terrorists and radical terrorists. If they’re terrorists, they’re terrorists regardless of their pedigree and regardless of whether they serve the geopolitical objectives of the state or not.” The Russian public is therefore very critical of the U.S. approach to counter terrorism, prompting the take-matters-into-your-own-hands way of thinking.
So while the world is left scratching its head, questioning this new and assertive Russia, locals see it only as a natural extension of a growing economy and rising soft power.
“It’s pretty much kind of consistent image and behavior,” says Alexander Titov. “[Putin] is kind of operating within the same behavioral expectations of the Russian public at large… He reflects the more broader attitudes in Russia towards various external threats.”
This is not to keep American politicians from making statements like:
“The US needs to do more the confront Russian President Putin [because of] his determined policy to sabotage American interests whenever and wherever he can,” courtesy of liberal presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Or, from the other side, the republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina: “Having met Vladimir Putin, I wouldn’t talk to him at all… We’ve talked way too much to him.. What I would do, immediately, is begin rebuilding the Sixth Fleet, I would begin rebuilding the missile defense program in Poland, I would conduct regular, aggressive military exercises in the Baltic States. I’d probably send a few thousand more troops into Germany. Vladimir Putin would get the message.
So what makes the US so unwilling to cooperate with Putin? After all, it took the Paris attacks to prompt them to begin dialogue.
The Cold War is an obvious answer, as Americans have a deep rooted distrust of Russia. Nato has as a result been expanding further to the Russian border since the fall of the Berlin Wall, all the way to territory which used to be part of the USSR.
Russians therefore feel threatened and misunderstood by the west. They are at their borders, and they are gearing up for war. As Agne Cepisnkyte says: “There has been an increased Nato involvement in the [Baltic states] in the last couple of years – supplying weaponry and military equipment, troops, organizing military exercises, establishing Nato network of command centers and so on.. The US high officials and military representatives have assured on a few occasions that in the years to follow it would maintain or even increase its military presence in the Baltics.”
A question of which came first, the chicken or the egg, Cepisnkyte continues to point out that “since the 1990s, Russia has been clear about its intention to maintain political influence in the post Soviet space.” She points out that the Baltic states, although Nato members, have been targets of ‘threat signals,’ “from aggressive political rhetoric and economic and energy restrictions, to cyber attacks, spying scandals and military incursions in air and maritime space.”
The efficiency of a bombing campaign to get rid of Islamist extremists is questionable, but that’s what Putin is, at least for now, successfully selling his people – safety and growth. As Cepinskyte says: “Domestic support for the regime is a significant factor. ‘Rallying around the flag’ effect has worked following the annexation of Crimea, as Putin’s home ratings peaked. Equally important is for Russia to show its military strength to the international community, particularly to the west.”