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Pope, Russia and the US: A bipolar world order déjà vu

Walid Jawad

Published: Updated:

Pope Francis’ current pilgrimage to the Baltics states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia is a politically telling one. The three nations have been sounding the alarm of a sinister Russian plot to co-opt them into the sphere of Moscow’s influence.

The Pope’s visit to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of these countries’ independence brings to mind that for five of those 10 decades they were under Russian occupation, from the 1940s to the 90s. Pope Francis predecessor St. John Paul II paid a visit merely days after the last Russian troops withdrew from Lithuania in 1993 confirming the significance of the Baltics.

Pope Francis is directing global attention to the Baltics at a moment when Russia is posing a real threat to their sovereignty. All the while, the international community is theoretically concerned with Russia’s hegemonic expansionist strategy.

The US is reluctant to use its power to curb Russia’s President Vladimir Putin’s designs to restore Russia’s glory and prestige as a global Superpower. This is an exceptionally opportune moment for Putin to take advantage of the US commitment to an isolationist strategy. The potential is glaringly clear, Russia has a chance to reshape the current world order.

Putin has been successful in exploiting opportunities to hasten US exit from Syria resulting in marginalizing the American role in the conflict, and challenging US influence in the Middle East in general

Walid Jawad

Global balance of power: The American retreat

The world is observing an unfolding power structure train wreck: an antagonistic American retreating from the world stage. The “America First” policy has translated in practice to an America alone reality.

Early last year in 2017, the US withdrew from the trans-Pacific trade deal, the Paris climate accord and the UN science, educational and cultural organization. The latest episode of this exclusionary policy, removing the US from international institutions, was in June: ceding its seat on the UN Human Rights Council.

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The US administration of Donald Trump has been methodical in advancing its exclusionary strategy by digging political trenches as it antagonizes friends and foes. Trump is finding points of divergence to create a rift with historically reliable European allies.

The US saga of withdrawing from the JCPAO redrew the lines pitting the US against the world. In fact its partners: the UK, France, and Germany ended up holding the bag of an unworkable nuclear agreement with Iran.

Southern neighbor

Simultaneously, the US is uncompromisingly alienating its southern neighbor, Mexico, and shocking its northern Canadian kin by renegotiates the mutually beneficial North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The current trade war with China and other countries completes the picture; the US is committed to an isolationist track. The vacuum left behind is allowing Russia to expedite it’s already acted upon and alluded to expansionist goals.

Putin has been successful in exploiting opportunities to hasten US exit from Syrian resulting in marginalizing the American role in the conflict, and challenging US influence in the Middle East in general.

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Such gains has not distracted Putin from his priority to restore Russia’s hegemony over countries falling under its old sphere of influence. The annexation of Crimea in 2014, and Russian exploits in Georgia in 2008 whereby it is incrementally seizing more land ever since provide a blueprint for whats to come.

Abdicating global leadership is not a solely American issue. Numerous European countries have seen a rise in right-wing forces steeped in anti-immigration fear-based politics. The stalled Brexit negotiations with the EU prompted Theresa May to threaten this past Saturday to unilaterally exit the European Union furthering the UK’s own isolationist streak.

‘Mother Russia’

Putin is skillfully playing a weak hand and reaping the benefits of his calculated bold moves. Putin’s expressed his own Russia First early on in his presidency. He laments the demise of the Soviet Union expressing nostalgic remorse emanating from leaving millions of ethnic Russians beyond the borders of today’s Russian Federation.

Moreover, Putin felt slighted by the US as it never showed Russia the respect it was due as a former Superpower after the disillusionment of the Soviet Union.

“We are a free nation and our place in the modern world will be defined only by how successful and strong we are” Putin announced early on in his presidency continuing “the moment we display weakness or spinelessness, our losses will be immeasurably greater,” clearly framing his political philosophy.

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Russia’s battlefronts have been expanding to include territorial claims of 460,000 square miles of Arctic Ocean seabed, misinformation campaigns in western democracies, providing funding to European far-right and far-left fringe parties as well as extending political, economic, institutional and military ties with China.

On the military front, Russia is increasing the frequency of submarines spying in proximity to undersea cables, donating military equipment to the Ortega regime in Nicaragua, providing support and arms to separatists in eastern Ukraine, and the annexation of Crimea in addition to shoring up the Iranian and Syrian regimes.

A new frontline

The American democratic system is built on trust and openness, which is being exploited by Russia. The Achilles heel of democracy; i.e. freedom and openness, has been tested post-9-11 when the US government took aggressive security measures in an attempt to avoid any future 9-11 type attacks.

Intrusive intelligence and security services practices of monitoring and spying on the once sacred personal communication of its citizens is now a matter of fact. The rush to protect the US from Russian cyber attacks, designed to manipulate American citizens and exploit the democratic system, gave rise to zealot nationalism and authoritarian tendencies.

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Russia’s digital offense, attacking the US in cyberspace, has been yielding the desired results. The profound and devastating disinformation volley is compromising the cohesion of American society, causing ethnic rifts and undermining the democratic system itself.

The Robert Mueller investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections has revealed Kremlin methods and sources with 13 Russian nationals indicted in the course of the probe. Cyber hacking and disinformation attacks continue into the 2018 midterm elections. Most recently, members of the US Senate are finding their emails targeted by hackers. The US is ill-equipped to combat the digital assault.

Beyond church and state

Perhaps outside actors without political titles are inclined to refocus our attention on the mounting concern over Russia’s global designs. Pope Francis is playing such a role beyond the limitation of church and state on his Baltic trip.

On the second day of his trip, he visited the site of the old KGB headquarters in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius offering respect to all of the lives lost at the hands of the Russians.

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The memory of the Russian occupation is still fresh in the minds of those who lived through it. The KGB museum that was once called the “Genocide Museum” has been renamed the “Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights” focusing on Soviet atrocities.

The sequence of political posturing on the world stage between the US and Russia is painting a clear picture: the power balance is swinging back to the long-gone cold-war type world order.

Reverting to a polarity dynamic between the US and Russia is marking the beginning of a new cyclical pattern whereby nations will have to dance between the east and west to avoid the crushing swinging of the bipolar wrecking ball.

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Walid Jawad is a former Senior Policy Analyst at U.S. Department of State and a former Washington, DC correspondent. He covered American politics for a number of TV outlets since 1997. Walid holds an undergraduate degree (B.A) in Decision Science and Management Information Systems and a Masters in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. You can follow him @walidaj.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.