Third Rome: Weekly Russia Update, 28th March 2019

The Kremlin

As everyone who has read a history book once is fond of repeating, history repeats itself. This has been a week of Cold War nostalgia in more ways than one.

As I noted last week, the US dispatched B-52 bombers to Europe for “theatre familiarisation operations”. A few days later, Russia’s Ministry of Defence released a video of what seem to be two Su-27 fighters chasing away one of those bombers. While the US was quick to dismiss this as a “routine interaction”, it seems fair to conclude that both sides knew exactly what the optics of this incident would be to the other side. Sabre-rattling over airspace is hardly new – Japanese and Chinese military aircraft routinely do so in the busy airspace of the sea of Japan – but with two major nuclear-armed powers involved, the chances for misunderstandings and accidents are much, much higher. Of course, one would have to be a hopeless optimist to assume that they would de-escalate, and I am, needless to say, not a hopeless optimist (just a cautious one).

The B-52 dispatch may be connected to the Ukraine elections, over which Russia continues to throw a long shadow. A recent Gallup survey showed that barely 7% of Ukrainians approve of the Russian leadership (this sentiment extends even to the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, with some Ukrainians asking their pastors to remove his name from liturgy and beginning to claim that their Orthodox Church is older than Russia’s, which is true). Compare this to a 48% approval rating for EU leadership. The Kremlin is more than likely well aware of this sentiment, and more than likely not pleased – Putin has made it clear on multiple occasions that Russia sees Ukraine as sharing its civilisational heritage, a polite way of saying that it sees it as part of the Russian sphere of influence.

So it’s not surprising in the least that Russia is paying back in kind what it likely sees as deliberate Western policy. Two Russian military planes landed in Venezuela on the 23rd, offloading at least a hundred troops and 35+ tons of equipment, ostensibly in support of a 2001 treaty but more likely to prop up the Maduro regime. This has not gone down well with the US at all, with NSA John Bolton tweeting (I assume, non-ironically) that “The United States will not tolerate hostile foreign military powers meddling with the Western Hemisphere’s shared goals of democracy, security, and the rule of law”. Donald Trump was more brusque, hosting the wife of Maduro’s rival Guaido at the White House and saying that Russia had to “get out” and that “all options are open”. Though Guaido has since announced “tactical action” to remove Maduro, it now seems less likely that the US will seek direct military intervention. This is a rather amusing turn of events, since the conclusion of the Mueller investigation into possible Russian collusion with Trump has not indicted the President, and Trump may have expected that his close relationship with Russia would grow more stable and acceptable to the American public. But if current trends are any indication, it’s all downhill from here.