Syria, Election Meddling, and the Revival of the Cold War
Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election was the magnum opus of an ongoing propaganda campaign against the US. The hacks wreaked havoc within the American political system by exposing high-level corruption in the DNC and raised serious concerns about the nation’s cyber security. While chaos took hold over American politics, the Russian military became increasingly engrossed in the Syrian War. In support of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, Russian airstrikes and elite ground forces crippled the US-backed Syrian rebels. The growing viciousness of Assad’s (and Russia’s) forces along with the intensifying threat of ISIS further entangled the US in the conflict around the time Donald Trump won the presidential election.
Fortunately, tensions have cooled significantly over the past few weeks following the Syrian ceasefire agreement made between President Trump and President Putin at the G20 Summit earlier this month. In the aftermath of his talks with Russia, President Trump officially ended the CIA’s training and arming of Syrian rebels on July 19th. While the Syrian conflict seems to be subsiding, the greater issues of cyber warfare and Russian aggression are becoming part of a recurring pattern.
Since Vladimir Putin’s rise to power in the early 2000s, US-Russian relations have been plagued by intermittent conflicts. In 2008 Russian forces invaded Georgia, a small country on the Black Sea that separates Russia and Turkey. After nearly a decade of resisting Russian influence, the tensions between the former Soviet states reached a boiling point when Georgia’s pro-western leader began serious attempts to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). While the fighting lasted only five days, it emphasized Russia’s determination to hold influence in the region of Eastern Europe that was once the Soviet Union. President Bush, along with NATO and most of Europe, condemned the invasion and responded by implementing sanctions on Russia.
When protesters in Ukraine ousted their pro-Russian president in 2014, Russia displayed similar aggression. Taking advantage of the political turmoil, Russian forces invaded Ukraine and annexed the territory of Crimea. Russian military forces attempting to disguise themselves as pro-Russian Ukrainians took hold of a number of military sites in Crimea in order to cripple resistance efforts. The reason for the invasion is debated; one explanation is that Crimea holds vast natural resources, while others point to growing public support for the EU/NATO within the country. With the pro-Russian president removed, it seemed Ukraine was turning more progressive and pro-Western. The invasion was abhorred by the international community; both the UN and NATO deployed peacekeeping forces to the region. President Obama was especially critical of the Russians and implemented harsh sanctions in response, further alienating Russia from the rest of the Western world.
When looking at the pattern of US-Russian relations over the last two decades, there are striking similarities to the time of the Cold War. Proxy wars and espionage were staples of US and Soviet foreign policy throughout the later half of the 20th century as the two superpowers played a perpetual game of nuclear hawk-and-dove. In their determination to exert influence over the world, the US and Russia have continued the very same tactics throughout the 2000s and 2010s. This begs the question; are we experiencing a revival of the Cold War? Perhaps the US and Russia have entered an entirely new conflict, or perhaps the Cold War never really ended. For those who argue the Cold War has continued into the present day, the symptoms are certainly present.
While Russia has demonstrated an unnerving determination to exert its influence over former Soviet states, the US has also perpetuated Cold War tensions by upholding NATO after the fall of the Soviet Union. NATO was originally created as a military alliance to oppose the Soviet Union but has evolved to focus mostly on peacekeeping and economic defense following the Soviet Union collapse. However, in choosing to maintain the very organization designed to limit Soviet - and by extension Russian - influence, the US undoubtedly put Russia on the defensive from the moment the Cold War ended. While the Russians may be guilty of attempting to reinstate aspects of the Brezhnev Doctrine in Eastern Europe, the US is responsible for upholding an anti-Russian military alliance that has crept closer to Russia’s borders in the fallout of the Soviet collapse.
PHOTO 2: ASSAD MEETS WITH PUTIN IN OCTOBER OF 2016
Most recently, the US and Russia have clashed over the Syrian Civil War. In 2013, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s attacks on peaceful protestors and his use of chemical weapons prompted the US to intervene in the conflict. At first its role was limited to covertly training and arming Syrian rebels, but the US became increasingly entrenched in the conflict due to the emergence of ISIS in the midst of the civil war. In 2015, Russia officially entered the war to back Assad by providing direct military support. Tensions in the conflict peaked in late 2016 and early 2017 as Russia became increasingly involved in the fighting, Assad allegedly used chemical weapons on civilians, and President Trump ordered a missile strike on a Syrian airbase in retaliation.
Compared to the Georgian conflict and the Ukraine invasion, Syria is (was?) most similar to the prototypical Cold War proxy war between the US and Russia. In 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in the midst of a civil war to ensure a pro-Soviet government would take power, and the US responded by training and supplying Afghan rebels. In late 2016 Assad himself claimed that the conflict in Syria had become a Cold War-esque proxy war between the US and Russia. To be fair, the claim seemed to be a PR move to shift blame from himself to the US, but Assad has made an interesting point in his attempt to save face. In typical Cold War fashion, both the US and Russia have been continually conducting “military exercises” near the other’s territory as tensions bubbled in Syria. The most recent examples of this are Russian bombers flying dangerously close to Alaska in May, and US - NATO Baltic Sea military exercises near the end of June.
While proxy conflicts were a main feature of the Cold War, propaganda and espionage were just as instrumental as militarism. Often credited as contributing to the fall of the Soviet Union, US President Ronald Reagan famously discredited the Soviet Union through his speeches in order to alter the world’s perspective on the conflict. This is not to say that a few speeches caused the fall of an empire, but Reagan’s PR campaign against the Soviets certainly contributed to growing doubt in the Soviet system amidst a declining economy, falling behind in the arms race, and increasing resistance from within. Reagan’s messages spoke to the Soviet people who already doubted their government and envied the quality of life enjoyed by the American public. By placing the US on the moral high ground, Reagan condemned the “evil empire” of the Soviets and altered public perception of the two countries, which further destabilized the already weak Soviet Union.
PHOTO 3: REAGAN SPEAKING IN WEST GERMANY IN 1987 WHERE HE FAMOUSLY CHALLENGED THE SOVIET UNION TO "TEAR DOWN THIS WALL"
Putin has also demonstrated a mastery over rhetoric and propaganda, exercising strict control over the Russian media and using it to disseminate anti-American propaganda. It could be argued that the Soviet Union was more open to free media and criticism in the late 80’s under Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (openness) than it is now under Putin, who has gained a sinister reputation for undermining the independence of the media through censorship and violence against journalists. It was a Russian tabloid that first published the interview in which Assad claimed the Syrian war was a US-provoked proxy war. Just as Reagan attempted to vilify the Soviet Union as an evil regime and a crumbling society, Putin appears to be focusing his propaganda on painting the US as a chaotic and deteriorating state - both morally and politically.
The pinnacle of Putin’s propaganda campaign against the US is his use of cyber warfare, most notably seen in the 2016 election meddling. In a piece published by the Washington Post in 2016, David Ignatius argues that cyber warfare has changed US-Russia relations so drastically that it cannot be considered a continuation of the Cold War, but rather a new conflict altogether. Over the past decade, Russian hacking has primarily focused on leaking documents relating to military/political scandals with the purpose of embarrassing the US. Most recently this manifested itself in the 2016 US election. Hackers connected to Russia exposed high level corruption in the DNC through leaked emails from the Democratic leadership. The media firestorm following the hacks helped propagate doubt and uncertainty about the leadership in the US both nationally and abroad. The chaos of the 2016 election was an embarrassment for both parties; it reinforced growing distrust in the government and raised serious doubts about our country’s ability to lead in the international community.
To say the Russians interfered with the election in order to get Donald Trump elected is disingenuous and ignorant of the broader context of US-Russian relations. It is true that Trump’s victory may be somewhat beneficial for the Russians; President Trump has expressed strong dissatisfaction with NATO and other pro-Western alliances, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had personal ties with Putin during his days at Exxon. However, these wins for Russia are miniscule compared to the losses the US has sustained in public opinion. The corruption exposed by the Russians caused both the American public and the international community to view the US as a chaotic and deteriorating state, just as Putin wanted. The hacking was never about Trump specifically; but rather about disparaging the virtuous and utopian US public image that prevailed over the Soviet Union. Cyber warfare and public perception are simply different dimensions to the same rivalry that caused proxy military conflicts in recent years.
So, is the Cold War really over? Well, it is complicated. The classic rivalry between the US and Russia is absolutely alive and well today as proxy wars, displays of military might, and propaganda continue to characterize the relationship between the two powers. However, the root causes of these symptoms have changed drastically. At its core, the Cold War resulted from fear of nuclear war and the spread of communism. Today’s rivalry is no longer about nuclear weapons and ideological battles between democracy and communism. Instead, it is about public image, clout in the international community, and economic superiority: staples of all international competition. These symptoms are not exclusive to Russia; US relations with China and Iran, for example, are in a very similar state. Following the Cold War, the US found itself as the most influential country in the world thanks to its staggering military and economic force. Any nation challenging that influence in the decades following have clashed with the US, just as Putin has done since the early 2000s.
The most salient feature of the Cold War was the chronic fear of impending destruction experienced around the world. For over four decades, the world lived in paranoia that nuclear warfare and the spread of communism would destroy all aspects of life. Today, the stakes are not that high. Powerful countries with similar militaristic and economic ambitions will always have some level of conflict and rivalry, but there is no reason to believe we are once again on the brink of nuclear war. Russia was a major influential power before the Soviet Union and it is no surprise that it continues to be after. While the Syrian War and Russian hacking efforts can be seen as continuations of wars fought to stop communism and Soviet espionage, it is also possible that this rivalry is standard competition between two countries attempting to preserve their roles as world powers in the coming century.