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Putin’s threats, their timing and the Cold War

Abdullah bin Bijad Al-Otaibi

Published: Updated:

Last Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin bragged about his political and military achievements in such an unprecedented manner by using new presentation methods and modern techniques to explain all about Russian weapons. However, the speech was mainly reminiscent of the old Cold War rhetoric, bitterness, memories and defeats.

How he blatantly voiced his vision may be shocking. However, this vision has been clear for many years and it has been expressed by Russia's policies and stances towards major crises in the world, whether in the Middle East, North Korea, Iran, Ukraine or elsewhere. What has been happening in terms of the Syrian or the Yemeni crises for the past few years reveals that this is a consistent approach of Russian policy.

Restoring glories of the past

Putin has for long wanted to show his people, his army and his allies that he would be the Soviet Stalin and the Russian Caesar at the same time and that he would assign Russia a valuable international role all over again to restore the glories of the past. He is now close to achieve what he wanted during the eight years of Barack Obama's rule which was marked with isolationism and regress.

Part of Putin's speech was expressed by Russia at the UN Security Council last week while making a decision on two important resolutions pertaining to the Middle East: one about the truce in Eastern Ghouta in Syria and the other about the Iranian role in arming the Houthi militia in Yemen. Russia agreed to the first resolution. However, the next day, it interpreted it on its own and decided on a five-hour-truce while continuing to violently shell the city. This is similar to what happened in Aleppo and in Grozny. It rejected the second resolution which was presented by Britain regarding the Iranian role in Yemen, and passed its other draft on Yemen without mentioning anything about the Iranian role there.

A new cold war?

It is a new cold world war in every sense of the word. Putin's speech is clear. It is the culmination of Russian policies, decisions and strategies. He is announcing the results of these policies and not announcing adopting them. Some observers, including myself, have highlighted this for years and warned that the cold regional war launched by the Khomeinist Iran would escalate into a cold world war. The majority rejected such an analysis then and did not pay attention to it, but it has been clearly proved right.

But there is a very important question regarding the timing. Why did Putin choose this particular timing? Is it just a preparation for the next presidential elections in about two weeks? Or is it a desire to evoke what he sees as great political and strategic achievement in confronting the West? Are they future promises? Is he reviewing achievements and vowing to continue to adopt this approach in the future? It could be so. However, did Putin think how this speech may affect Russia and lead to the adoption of international policies in which he may not be the biggest winner?

The Cold War was an expression of an international consensus that rejects world wars and acknowledges how hideous they are and how their future means the destruction of the human race. International treaties that reject world wars were thus approved. So does Putin’s speech indicate going in the opposite direction? In other words, is the aim of his speech is to escalate major regional crises in North Korea and the Ukrainian crisis and others and enhance Iran's roles in the Middle East to lead to a third world war that destroys everything?

When examining historical moments of transition in terms of the balance of international powers, everyone sought to enhance their international position and achieve their greater interests. They even desired that these balances are altered to achieve their aims. However history has taught us that the final outcome does not match the reaped result and that adventures are not calculated when adopting such policies as those seeking to shake this balance of power may be the biggest losers.

When considering the timing of his speech, we notice that it came after a clear western trend to support US President Donald Trump's policies toward the crisis in Syria and direct and clear criticism of Russia's policies. France and Britain also got involved here as the more brutal the Assad regime, the Iranian militias and the Russian forces are, the more countries are rejecting Russia’s decisions on Syria. The issue of eastern Ghouta is just one example.

In terms of the US’ role and its status in the world, it’s worth noting that Putin made this speech during the reign of an American president who is completely different than his predecessor. Trump is fighting an internal political battle to provide the biggest historical support to the Pentagon and to strengthen the US on all levels to lead the world. So is this the appropriate time to make threats, defy others and show off using military force?

There is also a point here regarding the economy. Is the Russian economy growing and prospering enough to engage in international competition and launch an arms race with the US and the West?

Actual threats?

Putin's speech included a frank threat that Russia will defend its allies against any aggression. So who are Russia's current allies? The most important ones in this context are North Korea and Iran. So has Putin felt there are actual threats against the two countries?

Last week, South Korean President Moon Jae-in conveyed North Korea’s desire to hold direct talks with the US. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also announced this in December. So does voicing this desire confirm that Russia sensed imminent threat? As for Iran, the Trump administration’s position is clear regarding Tehran’s policies. It’s actually an advanced stance compared with some European countries. So does Putin sense there will be imminent policies that might force Iran to yield to international resolutions, abandon policies that incite chaos and stop supporting terrorism?

History’s doors are open for new things. Restoring balance in international politics has already begun. The future is open for developments pertaining to the stance on international peace and security, whether negatively or positively.


This article is also available in Arabic.

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Abdullah bin Bijad al-Otaibi is a Saudi writer and researcher. He is a member of the board of advisors at Al-Mesbar Studies and Research Center. He tweets under @abdullahbjad.

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