The media have grown fond of using the word ‘swirl’ to describe the various accusations, responses and protestations of innocence batted to and fro amongst President Trump and his administration. And that is precisely what it is. A chaotic swirl of accusations and denials moving from one character, pausing for a while, and then on to the next. Nothing is ever resolved and seemingly no progress is made in uncovering the truth. Amidst this President Trump appears disorientated, frustrated and confused and hence the current administration and the U.S. state is, if not impotent, certainly distracted from world affairs.
How does Russia fit into this picture? There was clearly a great deal of contact between the Republican nominee and future President Trump and it is obvious that Russia courted Trump during the election campaign. Whether Putin’s administration and various organs of state intervened electronically, financially or otherwise remains unclear.
Was it illegal? Nobody knows, well no one in Washington. Russia of course knows and could clear this up by releasing a statement one way or the other. Trump would either be cleared and get on with his manifesto, or he would be impeached. Either way the US would be able to move on. But Russia remains largely silent, allowing the Republicans to eat themselves whole.
European Union fully occupied on three fronts
Elsewhere in the world, the European Union is fully occupied on three fronts, immigration, the economy and Brexit. Fractious relations have developed within the 28 member states as they disagree on free movement and border control. An enormous migration of people from the Middle East and Africa are fleeing war and poverty, the biggest migration since WWII. The Greek economy, together with Spain and Portugal, remain fragile and on fiscal life support from the European Central Bank (ECB). Meanwhile the UK voted to leave the union last year and the EU faces negotiating cutting ties with it’s third largest member.
Make no mistake, the EU has a lot of problems on the table at the moment. As with the United States, this leaves a United Europe weaker and paying less regard to external affairs.
Concerning the Brexit vote in the summer of 2016. It was suggested by a committee of Ministers that foreign governments interfered with the vote. The website through which the public registered to vote collapsed under a distributed denial of service attack (DDOS) on the final day of registration. The result was that tens of thousands of people were denied a vote and the attack appeared to emanate from Russia and China. It is doubtful whether this single act swayed the vote since the margin for the Leave vote was well in excess of 1 million. However it certainly cannot be discounted entirely, particularly if you were to factor in social media manipulation and other propaganda tactics.
Syrian Civil War
In Syria civil war continues to rage. The Russian involvement in Syria began in September 2015 following a request for help tabled by Assad’s government for assistance fighting rebel and ISIS forces. Russia sent airforce units and established a base inside Syria and began hitting more or less anyone opposed to the Syrian government including those the US and Nato viewed as moderate opposition.
The outcome has been to roll back US influence in the area. To date, despite numerous cease fire agreements, the Civil War rages on with no resolution in site. The chaos this has created in the region has damaged The West’s relations with many of the countries in the area and of course the instability supports a higher oil and gas price. The higher the hydrocarbon price the wealthier the countries exporting fuel become.
North Korea Missiles
On the North Korean peninsula Kim Jong-un sabre rattling looks increasingly desperate as his regime repeatedly fires off ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan. The worst drought since 2001 has hit the country and bodes ill for citizens already short of food. Russia shares a border with North Korea and alongside China remains a key influence on North Korean affairs. The Korean Peninsula was the theatre for one of the Cold Wars proxy wars with the US and UK backed South Korea pitted against Soviet and Chinese backed North Korea.
The majority of North Korea’s military hardware was either made in Russian or the Soviet Union or derived from Russian hardware. The elephant in room however is how an isolated state can produce and fire sophisticated ballistic missiles, something very few countries in the world can do. The technology is coming from somewhere, and that somewhere is either China or Russia.
Last year the Kremlin wrote off 90% of the rogue states debt. Russia has recently issued statements pleading for a peaceful resolution to North Korea’s aggression but stopped short of endorsing a recent UN condemnation of missile launches, citing disagreement over the specifics of the missile’s classification.
Closer to home for Russia, in 2014 the Crimea was annexed from the Ukraine and now calls itself Novorussia receiving the full support of the Russian Federation. The annexation came from within, or that is the story the Kremlin peddles. Soldiers with modern Russian made equipment but with no insignia’s or distinguishing marks fought for Crimea. Russia’s response, it’s citizens are free to go and fight if they wish. Russia sent a volunteer force.
The result, the Ukraine is divided, it cannot apply or succeed to the EU. The civil war freezes the problem of an expanding EU into eastern Europe and what Russia sees as it’s sphere of influence in the region. This is further reinforced by problems in Moldova.
Moldova and Transnistria
A lot of people have never heard of the Republic of Moldova. It lies between Romania and Ukraine near but not on the Black Sea. A former member state of the Soviet Union it formerly supplied the Soviet Union with excellent wine and agricultural produce. It is the poorest country in Europe and one of the poorest in the world.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union a region of Moldova along the Dneister River called Transnistria decided it wanted to remain allied to Russia and declared itself independent. Russia recognises this and stations troops there ‘to help stabilise the area’ and regularly conducts exercises. Moldova complains and nobody listens. This is akin to China stationing troops in Alaska and conducting war games. But as its Moldova, no one cares.
Russian involvement is everywhere, though the specifics are difficult to nail down and comments from the Russian state often add to the confusion rather than explain. Russia has as much right to involve itself with foreign affairs as the US, the UK or anyone else. But it seems that Russia arrives to a problem with fog further obscuring a solution.
The common ingredient in all of these cases, with the possible exception of the Brexit vote, is Russia. It is allegations of collusion with the Russians to swing the Presidential Election within which the Trump Administration founders. Hackers may or may not have swung the Brexit vote. In Syria, Russia intervened to support Assad’s government regime and weaken US aligned forces. Breakaway regions of Ukraine and Moldova align with Russia, and finally North Korea has few friends but Russia seems to be on this short list.
The Russians have a word for this ‘maskirovka’, originally meaning military deception but now finding itself expanded to political deception and generally arranging disorder for the benefit of the state. The literal translation of maskirovka is ‘masking’ and it has long been practised by the Russians. At Stalingrad, the turning point of WWII in the Soviet Union, the Russians fooled the Germans into thinking just 6 armies were aligned on the banks of the Volga River. In fact there were 10. And of course the Cold War was essentially just one enormous maskirovka.
In the 1978 the Soviet Military Encyclopedia expanded the term with a revised definition, ‘Strategic maskirovka is carried out at national and theater levels to mislead the enemy as to political and military capabilities, intentions and timing of actions. In these spheres, as war is but an extension of politics, it includes political, economic and diplomatic measures as well as military.’
It is no accident that the country is proud, and rightly so, of producing some of the worlds greatest chess players.
Look around the world today and it is difficult to find a crisis where you could say with authority that Russia is not involved. Equally, it can be difficult to say definitively that it is involved (with the exception of the civil war in Syria). And this is the beauty of ‘maskirovka’, plausible deniability. The benefit for Russia is to hinder political process and keep everybody occupied sorting out their own problems so that no one has the time or resource to throw a spotlight on to Russia herself.
The advantages are clear. An introverted EU is no longer looking to expand eastward, the US is squabbling in Washington and committing its military to the Middle East and the seas off China and Korea.
Russia itself is not in the greatest of health. It is a proud, fiercely patriotic country but one with a lop sided economy dependant on oil and gas. The country produces little other than the oil and gas extracted from vast reserves in Siberia. The population continues to shrink since, despite increasing birth rates, the death rate amongst adults is one of the highest in the developed world. Little is spent on infrastructure or healthcare whilst the military budget has ballooned in recent years. The West has sanctioned Russia, both individuals and certain exports but this is of little consequence. Officials can be replaced and parma ham and parmesan substituted for home grown fare.
The most important concern with all of this is that with so many regions of the world embroiled in some sort of crisis, it is the people who suffer. Restrictions on travel, frozen public sector pay, dysfunctional health care systems, poor housing. The list goes on. With the world’s governments distracted and unable to push ahead with the job to which they were assigned, to govern for the population at large.
Each generation which passes finds itself at a point of crisis. There is nothing new in history. For our great grandparents it was the First World War and the Great Depression, for our grandparents the Second World War, our parents the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction. For a while the world rested in the 1990’s and 2000’s, certainly from a Western viewpoint.