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The Strength of the Bear: Russia in a Post-Cold War Context

On the cusp of a war in which millions lost their lives, borders shifted and modern warfare was revolutionized, Winston Churchill made an observation of Russia: “It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” For decades, Russia has fascinated historians, politicians and the public alike. Stern and impenetrable, its six million square miles would engulf China, the UK and the United States.

Just one year ago, the world’s leaders met in the Turkish resort town of Antalya. Obama, Erdogan and Cameron urged Putin to reconsider Russia’s commitment to Assad, as well as the targeting of Syrian moderate forces. The chasm between these leaders and Putin could not have been wider.

Western analysts are no longer questioning, but insisting that this increased tension marks a return to Cold War style politics. Yet, Putin’s Russia bears no resemblance to that of Soviet years gone by. Russia faces grave challenges at home: An aging population, an average life expectancy of 65 for men, and a shrinking economy. Growling, yet majestic, the Russian bear strikes out with aggression abroad to send a signal to its foes, masking its vulnerability.

Turkey: Antalya, nestled on the strip of coastline known as the Turkish Riviera, played host to the world leaders at the G20 meeting last November. Meanwhile, the Syrian War and refugee crisis raged to the East and West. With both countries supporting opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, relations between Erdogan and Putin hit an all time low. Just two weeks after the all-important summit, Turkish jets downed a Russian Su-24 bomber near the Syrian border, reportedly for violating Turkish airspace. Moscow insisted that their jet had not breached the border.

Russia and Turkey today remain divided over the Syrian conflict. Moscow is backing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, while Ankara remains keen to oust him. However, having recently signed a deal on the TurkStream gas pipeline, due to pump 31.5 billion cubic metres of Russian gas to Europe per year, commercial and political ties have been strengthened. The TurkStream gas pipeline will allow Russia to bypass Ukraine entirely. Even during disputes with Ukraine, Russian will still have a major route to large markets in Western Europe.

Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, told Time that the warming ties “shouldn’t be read as a strategic realignment on the side of Turkey.”

“It is much more an effort to eliminate the acrimonious state of the relationship following the plane incident,” Ulgen said. “Now the relationship stands on more firm ground, but again, both history but also the reality of Turkey’s relationship with Russia has amply demonstrated that there can be no real strategic realignment in Ankara and Moscow.”

While the pipeline will hold huge economic benefits for Moscow, it is an expensive project for Ankara. Following a failed coup attempt in the country, Turkey’s softened stance towards Russia may prove that a strong ally in Moscow is seen as key in assuring its own national security, despite diverging interests abroad.

Syria: The rise of the Islamic State and its affiliates has become a defining foreign policy challenge for Putin. Last year at the G20 summit, both Putin and Obama agreed the need for a Syrian-owned political transition, one month after IS affiliates claimed responsibility for blowing up a Russian airline over Egypt, killing 224 passengers. Evolving from a fight to protect Russia’s influence in the Middle East (as well as its only warm-water naval base off the coast of Syria), increased Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict rang out as a warning shot to those who compromised the security of Russian nationals.

Today, Russia’s supposed military prowess is being demonstrated daily in the theatre of war: Up to 5,000 Russian soldiers are currently stationed in Syria. Putin has also dispatched Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, to Syrian waters. The Kuznetsov is carrying about 14 fighter aircraft, as well as up to 24 helicopters. If the planes are used to bomb targets on the ground, this will be the first time Russia will have used its only aircraft carrier in combat.

As the imposing flagship passed through the Bosphorus last month, the message was clear: Russia’s strategic assets should not be doubted. Yet, several experts have claimed that if the Kuznetsov were to be tested, it would not fare well. Persistent problems with propellers and smoky engine troubles cast doubt on an attempted projection of power.

United States: The race for the White House has dominated Western media outlets over the last year. Obama and Putin had a frosty relationship caused by disputes over Ukraine, cyber warfare and nuclear arms controls. Yet, President-elect, Donald Trump, seems to have won the Russian people over. In a poll conducted by YouGov, one G20 country alone named Trump as their preferred choice for US President: Russia.

On the campaign trail, Trump lauded Putin as “a strong leader,” rattling diplomats in Washington and Europe. Trump’s Moscow-friendly campaign rhetoric landed well. On Election Day, Putin was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Trump on the result by telegram, heralding a “golden age” for stretched US-Russian relations. Trump having suggested he might recognize the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin’s Russia may well benefit from the change. The new Trump administration will be in place to lift Ukraine-related US sanctions, going some way to ease the economic hardship currently faced by Moscow.

“Putin has the ability to advance his interests in many different ways. Sometimes tactical diplomacy can help,” said Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in an interview with Al-Arabiya. “We’re in a temporary truce phase.”

And what if the truce doesn’t hold? Both men may be iron-willed, but both have a decidedly different appeal for their supporters. Trump is an outsider: anti-establishment and unpredictable. Putin: a President for the oligarch elites. While Russia’s state-controlled media cheered Trump’s election, whether or not relations can be restored remains to be seen. Both politicians rely on a public convinced of their strength and power. Will either ego be prepared to bend to the will of a long-time opponent?

Above all, Putin’s hostile power plays show not just a lack of regard for the rules, but that he is willing to rip up the old playbook. From economic deals with Turkey mid-dispute, to grand shows of military prowess off the coast of Syria and revolutionary cyber warfare with the US, Putin is taking risks met with few consequences. Today, radical action abroad is taking place in order to secure Russia’s national interest.

In this post-Cold War context, the stakes for Moscow are far higher. The Russian public faces greater hardships. A young KGB officer watched Soviet Russia fall in East Germany. He would become the leader of Russia, refusing to watch the country humiliated again in a changing world order. Putin’s politics revolve around lashing out, taking control and refusing to co-operate abroad. As Western nations increasingly fold in on themselves in the face of change, can they afford to turn a blind eye to the aggression of the bear?