There have been many moments in recent years when Moscow and Washington’s aims have been in conflict. But not since the 1980s has the hostility between East and West bubbled over on so many fronts at the same time. A new Cold War, often declared by analysts and often denied by both governments, felt like a very real thing on Friday.
The news alerts came in rapid succession: Finland reported Friday that its airspace had been violated by Russian warplanes. Then NATO member Estonia reported the same thing. Later, the Estonian government claimed it was tracking a ferry crossing the Baltic Sea that Tallinn said was delivering nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles to Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave, a move one Western analyst likened to a “a Baltic version of the Cuban missile crisis.”
Then, Washington and Moscow began a dangerous war of words.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Russia and its allies in Syria should be investigated for war crimes over the continuing siege of Aleppo. Moscow fired back by claiming it had installed advanced anti-aircraft systems in its Syrian military base after discovering a U.S. plot to attack the facility.
The Kremlin next mused about returning its military to Cold War bases in Cuba and Vietnam.
Washington capped off Friday – Mr. Putin’s 64th birthday – by formally accusing Russia of hacking e-mails of the Democratic National Committee in an effort to influence the U.S. presidential election. “We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities,” read a joint statement from the Department of Homeland Security and the director of National Intelligence on Election Security, pointing a finger at the birthday boy himself.
Meanwhile, the slow-motion war between Russian-backed separatists and the Western-supported government in Ukraine grinds on.
Syria has been the main point of contention for more than a year now, with the Obama administration left writhing on the sidelines while Russia uses its air force to pulverize opponents of President Bashar al-Assad. That was tolerable when Russia was hitting the so-called Islamic State, but in recent months most Russian sorties have struck at Western-supported rebels holding out in besieged eastern Aleppo.
“Last night, the regime attacked yet another hospital and 20 people were killed and 100 people were injured. Russia and the regime owe the world more than an explanation about why they keep hitting hospitals and medical facilities and women and children,” Mr. Kerry said in Washington. “These are actions that beg for an appropriate investigation of war crimes and those responsible would and should be held accountable for these actions.”
Mr. Kerry didn’t name the hospital that was allegedly bombed Thursday, but there have been several hospitals hit in recent weeks, and a United Nations aid convoy was struck from the air as it was travelling in Aleppo province during a brief ceasefire last month. This was less about Mr. Kerry calling for an investigation of a specific incident than it was the Secretary of State desperately reaching for any available tools to stop the assault on Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city before the war.
The White House has let it be known in recent days that it was even pondering military action – likely in the form of air strikes against the Syrian military – as a method of trying to force an end to the siege. The Kremlin, which controls the airspace over Syria and recently bolstered the anti-aircraft defences around its base in the northwest of the country with sophisticated S-300 and S-400 missile systems, has let it be known it would open fire on any warplanes it saw as a threat to its forces.
“The S-300 appeared [in Syria] after experts close to the American establishment had started leaking information … that the U.S. could hit Syrian airfields with cruise missiles,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Friday.
And Syria is just one front where Russia and the U.S. were wrestling on Friday. The alleged violations of Finnish airspace by Su-27 fighter planes – two in 24 hours – came on the same day the U.S. and Finland signed a new agreement aimed at deepening defence co-operation with a country that remained firmly neutral throughout the Cold War, but which now senses a security threat to its east. Russia denied any violations of Finnish airspace.
The delivery of the Iskander-M missiles to Kaliningrad, if it happened, may be the most serious development. From Kaliningrad, 15,000 square kilometres of Russian territory wedged between NATO members Poland and Lithuania, the missiles can target anywhere in Poland or the Baltic states.
In 2009 – back when Washington and Moscow were still working on the ill-fated “reset” of their relations – Russia promised not to make such a deployment in exchange for the U.S. standing down on its proposed missile shield for Eastern Europe. That pact now looks to have been unilaterally shredded by Moscow, which last week announced it was also withdrawing from a 16-year-old plutonium disposal treaty that was previously seen as a key step toward guaranteeing nuclear non-proliferation.
“For Warsaw and several other NATO capitals, this move [deploying Iskander-M missiles to Kaliningrad] resembles a Baltic version of the Cuban missile crisis,” wrote John R. Schindler, a former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer.
Mr. Schindler said the Kremlin seemed to regard Mr. Obama as “weak-willed” and Mr. Putin seemed determined to gain as much tactical advantage as possible while Mr. Obama was still in the White House.
The election hacking accusations, if proven, suggest the Kremlin has been deeply involved in trying to ensure it is Republican candidate Donald Trump who next moves into the Oval Office.
Mr. Putin apparently sees Mr. Trump, who has repeatedly praised the Russian President’s “leadership,” as someone willing to make peace – on Russia’s terms.