The West goads an insulted Russian bear.

10748795_1523417584542252_890004804_nThis year NATO has intercepted more than 100 Russian military aircraft – triple the amount in 2013. Last week a surge in Russian military activity occurred across north-western Europe. The Swedish Defence Force reacted to reports that an unidentified submarine, believed to be Russian, was spotted near Stockholm. Concurrently a series of missions across international airspace was undertaken by the Russian Air Force. During several of these sorties the Russian planes involved did not file flight plans, maintain contact with civilian air traffic control, or use transponders. Long range bombers reached the North Sea while others entered the Atlantic. In total NATO tracked and intercepted 26 Russian jets, bombers and air tankers. Tensions between Western nations and the Russian Federation are high, fuelled by the conflict in eastern UkraineAs the military stand-off between Russia and the West escalates we should ask how this situation came to pass.  

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first foreign leader to call Washington to express condolences. He stated that “Russia will continue to provide intelligence information we have collected…on international terrorists”. As the US and its allies prepared to invade Afghanistan, Putin also facilitated coordination between central Asian nations and Washington. This allowed Western access to several airbases in the region without which the war in Afghanistan would not have been possible. At a meeting in 2002 Putin offered US President George W Bush some prescient advice. Putin suggested that Osama bin Laden might be in Pakistan and that the US allies of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were untrustworthy. Events since have proved the truth of this advice.  

The hawkish Republicans running the US misinterpreted Russia’s new spirit of cooperation. While the US and its allies prepared to invade Iraq in 2003 Russia strongly voiced its opposition. These concerns went unheeded by the US, but supported by France and Germany. Russia eventually supported the UN resolution which called for Iraq to disarm any weapons of mass destruction or face the threat of war. However, figures in the US administration accused Russia of helping move Iraqi chemical weapons into Syria during the inspections. Following the invasion, Russia condemned the attack, with Putin calling it a grave mistake. The Russian foreign minister stated in June this year that “we are greatly alarmed by what is happening in Iraq. We warned long ago that the affair that the Americans and the Britons stirred up there wouldn’t end well”.   

Aggressive unilateral militarism by the United States further damaged relations between Russia and the West. In 2002 the United States withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Free of this treaty President Bush began talks with Poland and the Czech Republic in 2007 to discuss the feasibility of constructing the US missile defence shield in both countries. Russia responded to these provocative meetings by threatening to place short range nuclear missiles on their borders. Putin warned of a new Cold War if the US constructed the shield in Europe. In 2009 President Barack Obama scrapped plans for the missile shield to be constructed in either Poland or the Czech Republic. However NATO and the US continues to construct shield sites elsewhere with a site planned for active use in Romania by next year.  

As a consequence of the detorating relationship a series of a series of border skirmishes occurred between the Republic of Georgia and South Ossetia in mid-2008. These culminated in a large scale Georgian attack into South Ossetia. Russian supported South Ossetia had been a province of Georgia but rebelled in the 1990s. Ossetian, Russian and allied Abkhazian forces responded to the attack with devastating effect, inflicting heavy losses on the Georgian army. Since 2002 US military personnel had been stationed in Georgia; just weeks prior to the war 1,000 US soldiers had participated in exercises with the Georgian Army. It would be surprising if Georgian Government plans to attack South Ossetia had not been known in Washington.  

In 2010, events in Libya caused a final tail spin in Russian Western relations. The Libyan people rose up against the rule of long-serving dictator Muhammad Gaddafi. Russia and the Gaddafi regime had engaged in lucrative oil partnerships for decades. As the civil war intensified a UN mandated no fly zone was proposed. The no fly zone vote passed in the UN, but Russia and several other nations abstained. The resolution authorised military intervention for humanitarian purposes only. Despite this the US, Middle Eastern and several NATO states began an air campaign which helped to topple Gaddafi. Russia felt deeply betrayed by the use of the no fly zone for the purposes of bombing. Russia’s main state-owned television station described the campaign as “aggression by the great world powers against a sovereign country.” Putin stated that “what is happening in Libya today proves once again that what [the Government is] doing to reinforce Russia’s defence capabilities is right”. 

Since 2003 the US and the West have ignored, insulted, threatened and, in Georgia, attacked Russia by proxy, despite initial Russian aid during the War on Terror. It is little surprise today that Russia has adopted such a hostile stance towards the West.  Events elsewhere continue to damage relations. The Syrian Ba’ath regime has been a close ally of Russia for over forty years. The long running Western support of ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels has enraged Russia. Russian warnings about fundamentalist Islamic militancy at the start of this war were ignored, yet again. In eastern Ukraine, long a region of Russian influence, the civil unrest and subsequent conflict are viewed in Moscow as further Western attempts at war by proxy. The recent military exercises of NATO in eastern Europe, and the US in western Ukraine, have certainly not dispelled such fears. So after ten years of Western insults and aggression is it really Russia’s fault that relations have reached this point? 

edward eastEdward East has an MA in Archaeology from Durham University. Edward researches Late Antiquity in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Caucasus. During his career he has worked on archaeology projects across Australia and in Papua New Guinea, Kuwait and the United Kingdom. 


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