The text was originally published in Russian
In 2014 Russia took a high-speed burst into the hurricane of global events, and has not been slowing down since then. Moscow has left behind the caution it used to practice in its foreign policy, and took up revising the status quo in accordance with its own interests. Active offensive policy has its accomplishments. However, Russia missed at least two sensitive blows to it. The first one was the miscalculation in the consequences of the public protests in Kyiv in winter 2014, the second was caused by misperception of risks of a military provocation from the Turkish part in the Russian Syrian operation.
And however cautious a driver is Moscow in its foreign policies, blind spots trouble every experienced driver.
The Ukrainian and Turkish crises occurred exactly because emergent threats were hiding in the blind spots, and although it was possible to get ready for them, they remained unnoticed.
We may not rule out the possibility that there are threats emerging at the moment - unseen by Moscow.
What does Vladimir Putin think about this? During his big press conference the president confirmed that Russia enters the year 2016 as a warring country. However, he defined the operation in Syria as military training for the Russian forces. If it is so – what will be their actual use?
Putin’s answers to reporters clarified a lot about where Russia stands concerning the key international issues. And while talking to the press the president shared some information that was previously held secret. It never got easier, but there is some reassuring news – let us start with it.
Firstly, this year Russia and the US will find themselves one step closer to one another – and again like in 2013, over Syria. Moscow and Washington have approved a political settlement plan, and agreed on general points of a UN SC resolution. This is big success especially taking into consideration the initial positions of both sides in the negotiations. The only thing left is to persuade the regional powers that this is the path that Syria will now follow. The task does not seem easy, but it turns out Russia is in no haste – “we can easily continue our training for quite a long time without any serious damage to our budget,” as Putin put it.
Secondly, no changes are expected on the Western front. The Donbass conflict will remain ‘frozen’ since Kyiv refuses to reconcile. As for the sanctions and their link to implementation of the Minsk-2 agreement, these two issues have never been interconnected for Moscow, and so no improvements on this direction either. It is a pity. But it is not the worst scenario. Former Soviet Foreign minister Andrey Gromyko used to say: “A hundred years of negotiations is better than one day of war”. Russian military specialists are actually in Donbass, whether they are instructors, or observers, or intelligence officers. And some of them are in fact taken prisoners – so let us exchange everyone for everyone.
Important and new shades appeared in evaluation on the ISIS. The terrorist group itself has become a minor threat, and its supporters in the region, as Putin said, are nothing more than just “cannon fodder under Islamic slogans that are only a part of the game of economic gain”, which is oil smuggling.
And if fighting terrorism actually is among Russian vital interests, combating smuggling is not.
Especially taking into consideration that among its participants are not only Islamists and Turkey, but also Iraqi Kurds, as well as a number of others, part of whom remains unknown. This is probably why Putin shared his doubts concerning the appropriateness of establishing a permanent military base in the region: “I believe that there is no urgent call to take root there and get totally entangled in the regional processes”.
Saudi actions aimed at opposing Iranian interests in Syria may also get into the blind spots. Recently Riyadh has announced establishing of its own Islamic coalition against ISIS. Putin said, “we do not even doubt that the Alliance is not anti-Russian”. It definitely is not, but it is better we wiped down our wing mirrors.
Most detailed, well-grounded and significant answer was about the conflict with Turkey. Conclusions that derive from Russian statements addressed to Ankara demonstrate that the two countries have turned into adversaries, and their disagreement is far beyond the SU-24 incident.
The key problem of the Russian-Turkish crisis lies in the difference of strategic cultures of the two states. Russia and Turkey see a military conflict from completely different perspectives – for Ankara it is an instrument of foreign policy implementation, whereas for Moscow it is a means of causing major damage.
Turkey is surrounded by complicated neighbours, and along its borders - in any part of it – there is a possibility of local military incidents without turning into full-scale wars. Which is why Ankara’s pain barrier in lowered. In 2012 it lost a war-plane in Syria, in response it shot down two warplanes and a helicopter of the Syrian military forces. In 1980s-1990s between Turkey and Greece a series of incidents happened, which led to catastrophes or destruction of warplanes. Occasionally, Turkey holds military operations in Syrian border areas and in Iraqi Kurdistan/ in other words, Ankara does not consider use of force an exclusive event that may drastically change its relations with the other state.
The Turkish problem is that until today it used to deal with smaller or weaker neighbouring states in the region, but for some reason it by mistake applied the same logic in relations with Russia.
For Moscow, use of force remains an instrument used at a pinch only in case of emergencies (which does not mean rarely) and most importantly – always to inflict major damage. After a number of crises, which took place in the period of global confrontation between Russia and NATO, certain game rules have been set that direct to avoid incidents that can develop into a war. Yugoslavia bombings, the august 2008 conflict, war-plane encounters in the skies of Baltics and the Ukrainian crisis – all this proves that these rules are still applicable: Russia and NATO are doing their best to avoid direct military confrontation.
This is why the attack against the Russian SU-24 is seen in Moscow as a provocation that violates the logic of responsible behavior in Europe. It is not something that the second world military power can just hush up. No one is allowed to use force against Russia without inflicting catastrophic consequences on themselves – this is a constant of Russian policy and a basis of its military doctrine.
Since the end of World War I, almost a century ago, Russia and Turkey have lost the skill of mutual avoidance of conflicts. Unfortunately, this is a talent developed through experience. Therefore, we cannot rule out a possibility of a local clash between Moscow and Ankara – there is a number of battle-grounds, where may take place. Meanwhile, during his press conference Putin stressed that economic contacts with Turkey will be preserved: “We will not take any measures that may damage our economic interests. Nonetheless, talking about the Plan of Defence 2016-2020, approved in November, the president said it should be updated, for the “international situation is constantly changing”. And one more comment – the only large-scale military exercise planned for this year is Caucasus-2016.
Apparently, the pace of Russian foreign policy in 2016 will not be slowing down. Yet, wing mirrors demand cleaning.
When and if the regional powers see Russia and the U.S again playing counter to each other in proxy games or something like that, then the dynamic will change negatively. But for now we are not doomed to this kind of bad dynamic and we need to be very cautious about what is exactly at stake: nobody needs a Saudi-Iranian war or a Russia-Turkey full-scale confrontation.
According to the co-authors of “International Threats 2016,” Russia and the U.S. need to take a broader view of geopolitical decision-making in order to understand each other better. Events in Ukraine and Russia’s military campaign in Syria have greatly fueled the debate on Russia and its role in global affairs, with the West consistently pushing the narrative about the Russian threat. This might undermine attempts to understand Russian foreign policy and the rationale behind it, including Russia’s national interests and goals.
Russia was the last to join in the destruction of the status quo and it did so only after it had realized that the other actors had violated the rules of the game. The EU and the U.S. were the first to intervene in Ukrainian internal affairs when they supported one of the two political parties that sought a change of power by force. The coup in Kiev drastically changed the status quo, and the West did not try to integrate the new Ukrainian opposition into the established system or heed Russia’s interests.
Commencement of Russia’s military operation in Syria has caught off guard not only ISIS, but also most Western intelligence services and analysts. Russia’s ability to alter the strategic situation on the ground with minimum efforts and maximum maskirovka deserves appreciation. However, Moscow fights ISIS not out of noble consideration. It is a practical issue of Russian national security.