As European leaders were busy discussing the particulars of the Brexit agreement, the Kremlin decided to use the opportunity to engage in some gunboat diplomacy and up the ante with Ukraine.
Not satisfied with annexing the Crimea, Putin gambled on shoring up his declining approval ratings by seizing three Ukrainian naval vassals and blocking access to the Sea of Azov.
Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, swiftly went to parliament to request immediate martial law for sixty days, which handed him new emergency powers – and which may incidentally assist his presidential re-election in March – which he was expected to lose.
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Neither side wishes to revisit the shooting match of 2014 but neither side wishes to let a political opportunity to grandstand with nationalistic rhetoric like this pass. The challenge will be for both sides to keep the skirmish confined to bombast without it escalating into full scale war with global strategic implications.
While Western leaders are rightly concerned, we must not lose sight of the background in which these events are happening: after a “hugely successful” operation in Syria where Russia managed to preserve the Assad regime and reconfirm the status of Russia a serious global power, an embolden Kremlin has concluded that the envelope can be pushed quite far without any meaningful response from the West. And pushed it must be continuously to incessantly prove the point.
Challenge will be for both sides to keep skirmish confined to bombast without it escalating into full scale war with strategic implicationsDr. Azeem Ibrahim
And it is not only on the international stage that Putin is flexing his muscles. At home, journalists and dissidents critical of the Kremlin have an unfortunate tendency to end up dead – whether within Russia, or indeed on the streets of foreign cities.
Indeed “something about the climate” in Western countries seems to quite inhospitable to those Russians fleeing the wrath of Putin or his cronies, for whatever reason. It is almost as if the forces of nature themselves actively enforce the omerta underpinning the core of current the Russian state.
But wayward Russians are not the only ones whose life-expectancy is adversely affected by the Kremlin’s opinions. Nobody should expect to fly over areas where Russia is “not fighting a war”, and not be blown out of the sky by Russian rockets fired from Russian territory.
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Unless, of course, they are deliberately trying to get themselves blown up by Russian Buk missiles, to stoke international Russophobic sentiments.
But perhaps the deadliest thing you can do, is be Syrian and need to go the hospital. If Assad bombs and chemical weapons won’t get you, then “accidental” Russian aerial bombardment most certainly will.
When Libya’s Gaddafi did half of this stuff, he was shunned by the world and blockaded into oblivion. When Putin does this stuff, it is a Russophobic conspiracy by the very Western leaders he helped elect to power. And aspiring European leaders will stand by him.
What we have with the current Kremlin government is a long-standing and fast exacerbating pattern of complete disdain for international laws and diplomatic norms. In fact, the very point of many of these actions seems to be nothing more than to test the West’s commitment to those norms, and to undermine them – perhaps best exemplified by the Skripal poisoning in London.
There is not other discernible reason for why Moscow would risk direct confrontation with London than to prove that it can flout norms with impunity, in the expectation that London would be incapable of mounting a meaningful response.
And so far that gamble has largely paid off: Russia is not substantially worse off for attempting to assassinate British citizens on British soil, despite all the international condemnation.
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But this needs to stop. We cannot allow Putin to undermine the fabric of our international order any further. This is a distraction we can do without as we must face the existential challenges of climate change in the decades to come.
The actions of the Kremlin in Ukraine so far already warrant the kind of blanket containment imposed on North Korea. The first step is to acknowledge a blatant reality and categorise the problem appropriately: the current Russian regime is a terror state.
The next step is to use all available international mechanisms we have used previously on terror states, to impose appropriate costs on the Kremlin, and to circumscribe their ability to kill random civilians around the globe with impunity.
And lastly, we will need to engage with the Russian people and confront them with this existential question: are you happy being governed by a terrorist, mafia-style regime?
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.