Obama Should Not Dismiss Putin as a ‘Ruffian’

When it comes to overcoming the conflict in Syria, U.S. President Obama and his Russian colleague Putin are not being exactly clever. They are increasing the risk of armed engagement — without really wanting to do so.

A couple of weeks ago, high above the beaches of Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin made an appearance for the participants of the Valdai Club, where he did not waste any time being polite toward the West. Actually, he could hardly have been more bitter toward the United States. Germany, still needed for [Russia’s] modernization, was treated relatively graciously.

At the same time, a description of the new situation was bluntly broadcast to the Russian public on national TV. No wonder the American diplomats that were present ascertained the relationship to have reached “rock bottom.”

At the moment, this assessment is the more optimistic version. A worsening of the global political situation cannot be ruled out regarding Syria and the surrounding areas, as well as the Ukraine and the Middle East, to the point where the confrontation can become life threatening. [The situation is] similar to the double crisis regarding Berlin and Cuba, which resulted at first in the world powers coming to the brink of nuclear war between 1958 and 1962, but which then forced them to undertake arms control for the sake of survival.

The result was a long nuclear peace, which even managed to overcome the clash in ideologies without the big bang — at least until now.

Putin’s Air Strikes on Syria

Since Putin ordered air strikes on Syria, which are aimed less at the Islamic State than the rebels fighting against President Bashar Assad and could easily hit the Americans, there is a big danger that the world powers’ war machines could get in each others’ way. Despite their reservations, both sides will sooner or later be obliged to set their boots on the ground, teach the locals about high-tech and defend military investments.

Accidents, misunderstandings, and human and material losses are pretty much unavoidable. The crises are escalating and influencing one another. There is a point where no one can go back without losing face. 1914 was the summer of sleepwalkers.

The United States continues to be the measure of all things to Putin, whether good or bad. He feels threatened by the soft power of the U.S. and fears a new “color revolution” in the countries, which Russia always considered to be part of the “near abroad.” He also casually mentioned that it is better to be the first to strike than to wait for it to come — something he learned on the streets of Leningrad. Now nuclear weapons are involved.

America’s Lapses

The United States is also in need of improvement when it comes to statesmanship and balance. To classify Russia as a “regional power” with its more than 8,000 nuclear warheads, as Obama did, misjudges the importance and function of the weapons that can bring about the end of the world. Dismissing Putin as the “ruffian from the last row” obstructs dialogue.

The “punish Putin” sentiment, which resulted in sanctions from the National Security Council after the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, is simply folly. If these were private affairs, one would consider this a love-hate relationship. One should not forget that not only was Putin the first head of state to express his condolences to George W. Bush after 9/11, but he also offered help and cooperation in the search for the culprits, actively backed the American deployment in Afghanistan and helped defeat the Taliban.

The American gratitude was minimal, another reason for the mistrust. Until today, the Russians consider the dual extension of NATO as a breach of trust. The American-British blitzkrieg against the strong man from Baghdad in 2003 was carried out against all of the Kremlin’s warnings.

The Russians feared for global strategic balance when the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 was terminated: By abstaining from antimissile defense on both sides, the treaty had made way for an era of strategic arms control, which over the years included missiles and conventional armed forces.

The Dangers of a Cyber War

The collapse of the Soviet Union from the mid-1980s on would not have happened so peacefully and cooperatively without the extension of the strategic chess game through openness, control and trust. Not much is left of this treaty system, except a restriction of 1,500 nuclear war heads in various setups for both sides.

What is lacking more and more over the last decade is vital trust that the other side will not drastically change the status quo. Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine are points of conflict; now Syria is one, too. Cyber war opens up new areas of conflict, as attacks and defense become indistinguishable from one another.

Are the world powers stumbling into a new conflict? “New order or no order,” Putin threatened a year ago. He and his counselors are torn between a system similar to the one from the Congress of Vienna, which was founded on balance, compensation and legitimacy of the great powers, and a new staging of the Soviet Union’s heritage.

A New Cold War?

There is a cold breeze coming in from the East. Will there be a new cold war? The one that ended conjointly in the 1990s was better than its reputation. After the early experimental phase was tamed by rules, it followed a code of conduct, which inculcated the nuclear balance. Even though both nuclear super powers were equal on a military level, ideologically they were irreconcilable. At the same time, they were connected through the threat of the end of the world, which either adversary could have brought about — certainly in a suicidal act of insanity.

That is now over. A new cold war will be different, built less on ideologies and more on materialistic currencies of power, ranging from deployments of tanks to the use of the cyberworld. The geometry of the powers will change because Russia and America are both turning to Asia in their own ways, where China is getting stronger and is being feared by all of its neighbors, including Russia.

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