Comment: Written by Justin Marinelli.
News has recently emerged that the Russian Defence Ministry are considering the reopening of military bases in Cuba and Vietnam. Many greeted this move with surprise and alarm, however there is nothing surprising about it – it highlights the strategic aggression that has guided Russian actions over the past several years.
This move is merely the next logical step for a Russia that seized the Crimea. This move is merely the next logical step for a Russia that put boots on the ground in Syria to stabilize the Assad government. This move is merely the next logical step for a Russia that views the current US President as weak and is well aware that as his final days in the Oval Office dwindle. Barack Obama will be increasingly unable to effectively leverage the office of the President to manage unfolding events on the geopolitical chessboard.
One of Putin’s more consistent goals during his rule over Russia has been the regaining of Russian power and prominence on the world stage, and his methods have been taken from the same rulebook that has guided Russian policy since Peter the Great: slow, steady expansion towards the west.
The seizing of the Crimea was one of the more aggressive moves made during this time, providing a beachhead for further Russian expansion into Europe (if deemed necessary) and also enabling Russian control over the strategic port of Sevastopol. Moves like the announcement to re-open bases are more subtle, but they fit into the same framework of making steady expansions followed by a subsequent entrenchment.
With this in mind, consider the presence of anti-aircraft missile systems such as the Pantsir-S1 among Russian forces in Syria. On the surface, this makes no sense. ISIS does not possess any high-altitude fighter-bomber aircraft, stealth or otherwise. Indeed, ISIS has no military planes of any kind. Those anti-aircraft systems are aimed at a different power operating in the region, a power that may not be acting in a manner above suspicion. They are there to shoot down any US aircraft that wander into airspace that the Russians would prefer to keep for themselves. They are there to contest US claims of air superiority, and they are there to send a message that Russia — which has generally avoided embroiling itself in the Middle East for the past 40 years or so — is now very much back again in this geopolitical arena, and it is here to stay.
If that wasn’t a loud enough message, however, all pretences of subtlety were dropped with the deployment of Iskander-M missiles to Kaliningrad. To put the matter as bluntly as possible, Russian President Putin has just dropped a missile shield 600 miles wide across the Baltics, and it is a missile shield that is very well-suited for offensive actions.
The term “saber-rattling” is often used to overestimate the implications of any less-than-deferential behaviour by a non-US country to “the international community”, but in this case, it understates the situation. This is not just posturing to look tough. This is deliberate preparation for a massive military counter-attack that could be unleashed any time Putin feels that Russia has been sufficiently threatened. This is not to say, of course, that Putin is necessarily planning a full-on invasion of Eastern Europe. However, it is clear that he wants to show the world that he could pull it off if he so wished. This is very much a message about Russian resurgence, and in a US that was paying attention, this would elicit the same alarm as did the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962. Instead, this was treated as a mere distraction from President Obama’s next round of golf.
Additionally, this deployment of Iskander missiles also shores up the Russian position in Syria. As the Syrian conflict continues to simmer, and international attitudes become increasingly divided on matters such as the Battle for Aleppo, the risk of direct US-Russia conflict increases, and it is dangerously easy for seemingly trivial slights to escalate if neither side is willing to back down.
If just one aircraft is “mistakenly” shot down, the entire balance could topple and before we know it we could be watching F-22s and Su-27s dogfighting in the skies above northern Syria. The missile shield in the Baltics is a way of saying that if the US acts too aggressively in Syria (perhaps by trying to establish a no-fly zone over Syria, an action currently supported by US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton), then Russia can shift gears and open up conflict in Europe. It makes sense too; the US could kick Russia out of Syria fairly easily if push came to shove but a confrontation in Eastern Europe favours not the eagle but the bear.
I cannot say for certain whether or not Putin intends to act aggressively and initiate offensive action in the near future, or whether moves like these are merely waiting moves in preparation for whatever the future holds. We will find out by what happens next. If he seeks to influence the outcome of the US election, military action (most likely in Eastern Europe) will be taken between the 18th of October and 2nd of November. If his goal is to capitalize on US weakness and indecision, his next move (whatever that might be) will come between November 18th and January 6th. If this is merely a defensive manoeuvre in preparation for whatever actions might be taken by the next US president, then nothing too overt will be done for the next several months.
We cannot yet say for certain whether Russia will carry out this announced plan to reopen military Cuban and Vietnamese military bases. Whether they do or do not will boil down to whether they sense weakness from the next inhabitant of the White House and whether or not they deem it more in their interest to play an opportunistic short-term game or whatever they feel secure enough to act in a more long-term manner. Either way, moves like this presage at minimum a short-term future of tension ahead, and they could very well be foreboding omens of a more intense conflict yet to come.