Mos­cow’s mil­i­tary ma­noeu­vres are more than an ex­er­cise

Putin’s para­noia, backed by a pro­lific State pro­pa­ganda ma­chine, is leav­ing many in the West ner­vous about Rus­sia’s fu­ture moves, writes Peter Apps

Irish Examiner - - Analysis -

Septem­ber will be a ner­vous month in East­ern Europe. On Septem­ber 14, Rus­sia will un­leash what may be its largest mil­i­tary ex­er­cise since the Cold War. In Poland, Ukraine, Lithua­nia, Latvia, Es­to­nia and else­where, of­fi­cials are openly con­cerned that the ‘Za­pad (West) 2017’ drills near their borders will be used as cover for a mil­i­tary at­tack.

Rus­sian pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin sees both con­ven­tional and nu­clear pos­tur­ing as a use­ful tool to re­assert Mos­cow’s sta­tus as a world power and in­tim­i­date nearby en­e­mies.

The three years since Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea have seen a dra­matic in­crease in Mos­cow’s mil­i­tary ac­tiv­ity.

But Rus­sia’s es­ca­lat­ing con­fronta­tion with the West goes well be­yond that. Mos­cow, Wash­ing­ton and other West­ern gov­ern­ments un­der­stand that any di­rect con­flict be­tween Rus­sia and the West would prove dis­as­trous. In­stead, the face-off is wors­en­ing in wider, of­ten weirder ways. And while many Amer­i­cans would blame Mos­cow, many Rus­sians see it dif­fer­ently.

Part of that is down to a Krem­lin me­dia ma­chine that re­lent­lessly pushes the mes­sage that Mos­cow must as­sert it­self to avoid be­ing sur­rounded and im­pov­er­ished — and paints the West as chaotic, cor­rupt and Machi­avel­lian.

Such views are deeply em­bed­ded in Rus­sia’s na­tional mind­set. An un­clas­si­fied re­port re­leased by the US De­fense In­tel­li­gence Agency in June con­cluded that se­nior Rus­sian lead­ers gen­uinely be­lieved Wash­ing­ton was in­tent on top­pling them, par­tic­u­larly un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama.

That be­lief cre­ates mount­ing dan­gers that dam­age and desta­bilise both sides — and that show no signs of sub­sid­ing.

On Au­gust 2, Trump bowed to bi­par­ti­san pres­sure in sign­ing a bill to im­pose new sanc­tions de­manded by US Congress.

It was a sign of just how Capi­tol Hill, not the pres­i­dent, now may be calling the shots — Trump com­plained on Twit­ter that the sanc­tions might dan­ger­ously im­peril re­la­tions with Rus­sia, but he was po­lit­i­cally un­able to block them.

At the end of the Cold War, West­ern lead­ers took the de­lib­er­ate de­ci­sion to pull Mos­cow into the West’s eco­nomic struc­tures to ce­ment peace. The lat­est round of sanc­tions may be the fi­nal nail in the cof­fin of that ap­proach.

Writ­ing on his Face­book page, Rus­sian Prime Min­is­ter Dmitri Medvedev de­scribed them as “eco­nomic war,” say­ing they ended any hopes for a rap­proche­ment un­der the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Even as the proxy war Wash­ing­ton and Rus­sia have been wag­ing in Syria ap­pears to be tail­ing off, the one in Ukraine ap­pears in­ten­si­fy­ing.

Last week, US De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis an­nounced the gov­ern­ment is con­sid­er­ing sup­ply­ing lethal weaponry to Ukraine — pri­mar­ily US-made an­ti­tank rock­ets — to be used in its on­go­ing war with Mos­cow-backed Rus­sian-speak­ing sep­a­ratists.

Mean­while, Mos­cow is in­sert­ing it­self more deeply into Wash­ing­ton’s con­fronta­tion with North Korea.

Last week, nu­clear-ca­pa­ble Rus­sian bombers probed Ja­panese and South Korean airspace. Mos­cow is en­cour­ag­ing Rus­sian tourism to North Korea, in­evitably com­pli­cat­ing any US de­ci­sion to con­duct mil­i­tary ac­tion on the penin­sula.

Rus­sia’s sus­pected in­ter­fer­ence in West­ern pol­i­tics now goes well be­yond in­ter­mit­tent hack­ing and the re­lease of po­ten­tially sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion seen in the Amer­i­can, French and other elec­tions.

So­cial me­dia ex­perts say an army of sus­pected Rus­sian-run Twit­ter feeds and other web and so­cial me­dia out­lets are now also en­er­get­i­cally push­ing their own dis­rup­tive nar­ra­tives into Amer­i­can and Euro­pean po­lit­i­cal dis­course.

Sus­pected Rus­sian-linked ‘bots’ — be­lieved to be largely au­to­mated Twit­ter feeds — were ob­served spread­ing far-right mes­sag­ing both be­fore and after the white su­prem­a­cist demon­stra­tions in Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia.

They are also accused of spread­ing ru­mors and crit­i­cism of US na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vi­sor HR McMaster dur­ing his re­ported face-off with now-ousted Trump strate­gist Steve Ban­non.

Sim­i­lar tac­tics — util­is­ing not just so­cial me­dia but Mos­cow’s main­stream for­eign-fac­ing plat­forms such as the Rus­sia To­day TV sta­tion and Sput­nik web­site — are aimed at Europe, some­times even more in­tently.

On Au­gust 6, McMaster accused Mos­cow, and Putin in par­tic­u­lar, of try­ing to “break apart Europe” with pro­pa­ganda and dis­in­for­ma­tion.

“The na­ture of the regime is one per­son,” he said in ref­er­ence to the Rus­sian pres­i­dent.

That’s a di­rect con­trast to the early years of the Obama pres­i­dency, when that ad­min­is­tra­tion hoped to side­line Putin by work­ing pri­mar­ily with then­pres­i­dent Medvedev.

That — along with per­ceived West­ern sup­port for op­po­si­tion and hu­man rights groups within Rus­sia — ap­peared to fur­ther feed para­noia in the Krem­lin, par­tic­u­larly after un­usu­ally large anti-Putin street protests in 2011.

Most ex­perts agree Putin pri­ori­tises his per­sonal sur­vival above all else. In his early years in power, Putin’s author­ity de­rived heav­ily from Rus­sia’s eco­nomic pros­per­ity and sta­bil­ity.

Now, how­ever, the Krem­lin pro­pa­ganda ma­chine fo­cuses on his role in restor­ing the coun­try’s mil­i­taris­tic and na­tional pride. If sanc­tions be­gin to un­der­mine the Rus­sian econ­omy, this may only in­ten­sify.

For now, all sides still clearly pre­fer to con­front each other with eco­nomic, po­lit­i­cal and other un­ortho­dox tac­tics rather than open force.

The up­com­ing Za­pad ex­er­cise, how­ever, will prob­a­bly fol­low what is now the tra­di­tional Rus­sian pat­tern of end­ing with a sim­u­lated nu­clear strike on an en­emy city or mil­i­tary force.

The last Za­pad ex­er­cise in 2013 had War­saw as the sim­u­lated tar­get, West­ern of­fi­cials say, with other drills tar­get­ing Swe­den as well as an off­shore Nato flotilla.

It’s Mos­cow’s way of re­mind­ing its neigh­bours and po­ten­tial ad­ver­saries of just what is at stake if ten­sions rise too high. The irony is that it will sim­ply guar­an­tee that a ner­vous world could get even more so.

Peter Apps is Reuters global af­fairs colum­nist, writ­ing on in­ter­na­tional af­fairs, glob­al­i­sa­tion, con­flict and other is­sues.

Pic­ture: Alexan­der Zemlianichenko/Reuters

Rus­sian pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin with Com­man­der-in-Chief of the Rus­sian Navy Ad­mi­ral Vladimir Korolev.

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