There is now no doubt that Vladimir Putin has launched a successful strategic offensive against the U.S. and its allies, attempting to reassert Moscow’s position as a world leader.
Putin’s challenge to the security of American allies in the Middle East and Central Europe despite his fragile domestic economy is not an historical anomaly. The combination of a skidding gas and oil price, Russia’s only major export, and limited sanctions by the U.S. and its allies, are sending the Russian economy into shortages and inflation.
But just as the fascist dictators of the 1930s, led by Adolph Hitler’s Germany, initially began their aggressive program with bluff, Putin has taken a leaf from their book. We know now that Hitler was ready in one encounter after another with France and other members of the Western alliance to backtrack if he had met opposition. That opposition was not forthcoming, however, in the long road of appeasement, hoping Hitler would end his depredations.
But, as the old saying goes, nothing succeeds like success, and Hitler road these victories to increasing power and his eventual catastrophe when he misjudged the Polish crisis in 1939. Putin is not Hitler, nor is Russia Germany, of course, nor is the world of the digital revolution the 1930s.. But the fact that Putin is immensely popular at home – in no small part because of his effrontery –works on that same old principle.
Like Hitler, he has exploited the presence of Russian minorities or pro-Moscow forces in his former Soviet neighbors. This has brought him success first in a weak Georgia, then in a Ukraine seeking to establish its independence after centuries under Russian domination, and the Baltic States with their history of Russian imperial rule and Soviet aggression.
But his most striking strategic victory has been in the Mediterranean where he once against has established a Moscow base in Syria. Putin has openly challenged the post-Soviet U.S. domination of Europe’s most important waterway by “establishing a permanent presence in the Mediterranean, and breaking out from their perceived military encirclement by NATO, economic sanctions and political isolation”, according to Adm. Mark Ferguson, the head of U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa.
Moscow’s ruthless air support of the beleaguered Bashar Al Assad regime in Damascus with enormous civilian casualties has been only a cover for the reestablishment of Moscow bases. In fact, Putin has deployed weapons that have nothing to do with the war against Syrian terrorism. Deployment in Syria of Russian long-range aircraft can now operate all along NATO’s southern flank. The addition of advanced surveillance aircraft creates the beginning of long-range air-defense and precision-strike force. There are reports he has sold a highly capable anti-ship cruise missile to give Assad an advanced air defense systems. In strategic terms, these have to be seen as a challenge to Turkey’s own airspace and therefore to NATO as a member of the alliance.
All this has given Putin the opportunity to put additional pressure on a diminished and overworked American military. The U.S. is going to be forced to redeploy resources now needed in the Persian Gulf to meet the growing challenge of Iran and in the Sea of Japan and the South China Sea where Beijing is rapidly expanding its military clout.
By refusing to go after the terrorists allied to Daesh, [the self-proclaimed Islamic sultanate in Syria and Iraq], Putin has produced a split in NATO. His success has reached such proportions that Donald Trump, a leading candidate for the Republican nomination for president, talks of extending a negotiating hand to the Kremlin.
The Obama counter-strategy has been a continued reliance on a policy of open-handedness to enemies in order to bring them to the negotiating table and compromise. There is no evidence, either with the Islamic terrorists, nor with Putin, that this strategy has been successful. Most experts on the area do not see Obama’s “deal” with Tehran on nuclear weapons as effective. And releasing Iranian assets as part of the bargain have probably freed them for additional operations as the world’s greatest state terrorist.
The Obama persistence in following his initial strategy will inevitably speed up the Russian expansion in the Mediterranean which will increasingly be seen by our allies in the region as the threat of a new cold war.