Tensions between the US and Russia have grown increasingly heightened since the beginning of the year. InsideOver’s Thomas O’Falk detailed a recent incident during which Moscow sent a fighter jet after an American bomber, crossing into Danish airspace in the process. The Kremlin also recently chased US jets into airspace near Alaska.
US-Russian Confrontations on the Ground
On the ground, US and Russian forces are also finding themselves encountering one another in less-than-amicable circumstances. Although the two states aren’t at war with one another, the casual observer in Syria would be forgiven to mistake as much.
After US President Donald Trump ordered a hasty troop withdrawal from northern Syria in October, Russian and Turkish troops seized the opportunity to claim broad swaths of hard-earned territory that ISIS once fought for. Although Washington reduced its footprint on the ground in Syria, 500 still remain to help Kurds in counterterrorism operations, the New York Times reported.
American Troops Injured in Accident
These 500 troops have been the subjects of confrontations with Russian counterparts. On Aug. 26, a collision of armed vehicles in eastern Syria gave the Pentagon new reason to take issue with the Kremlin’s bullying behavior. Several American soldiers were injured in the wreck, as CNN reported.
“Russian forces breached our deconfliction arrangement in Syria and injured U.S. service members with their deliberately provocative and aggressive behavior,” said Chief Pentagon Spokesman Jonathan Hoffman. “We have advised the Russians that their behavior was dangerous and unacceptable. We expect a return to routine and professional deconfliction in Syria and reserve the right to defend our forces vigorously whenever their safety is put at risk.”
Naturally, the Kremlin blamed the American forces for attempting to impede the movement of Russian forces. Although Moscow said it informed Washington in advance, US authorities denied receiving prior notice. Regardless of which side was to blame for the accident, Moscow has demonstrated a repeated behavior of seemingly courting conformation with the American military, almost as if it is goading Washington to retaliate.
Central to comprehending the problem at the core of the US–Russia entanglement is a disagreement over control of Syria’s government. The Kremlin has backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and is the only reason he has managed to stay in office. The US has pursued a Syria free of Assad, but has been losing out to Russia’s interests.
Moscow stepped in to support Assad in 2011 at an critical time — the Arab Spring protests had incited a failed uprising in Damascus a few months after a US mission resulted in the killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. America had grown weary of wars in the Middle East and with bin Laden eliminated, it could retreat with its mission accomplished.
Thus, when Syria began to revolt against Assad, the US sat back and did nothing while Russian President Vladimir Putin propped him up, even as the Syrian dictator crossed former President Barack Obama’s red line by using chemical weapons against his people. Syria quickly became Putin’s foothold in the Middle East.
‘We Don’t Have a Strategy’
Now, American troops in Syria, the small number that remains, are devoted not only to helping their Kurdish allies, but also protecting oil interests, Newsweek reported. One senior American intelligence official described the situation as a disaster, saying “We don’t have a strategy.”
The lack of strategy contrasts with the Kremlin’s very clear strategy of bullying a neutered American military wherever it can. In Syria, Russia wants America to leave, completely this time.
“We proceed from the fact that American military presence in Syria (both in At-Tanf and in the Northeast) is illegal,” said Nikolay Lakhonin, a spokesperson for the Russian embassy in Washington, told Newsweek. “Neither the U.N. Security Council, nor the government in Damascus gave their approval for the US to deploy troops.
He also argued the American military makes life worse for Syrians by cutting them off from their own oil and gas supplies. Washington is facing an enemy who insists, in very clear terms, the US is illegally occupying a foreign territory. The Kremlin also understands the bar for American troops to respond with force is incredibly high.
Pushing the Envelope
Conversely, Putin recently rewrote the Kremlin’s nuclear policy to authorize Russia to respond with nuclear arms even if it is not hit by them first. In short, Russia is more willing to act aggressively, forcefully, and faster while the American military avoids and runs from confrontation.
“Russia’s approach is to always push the envelope just a bit and wait for response,” said Alina Polyakova, the president and chief executive of the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington. “This ongoing pattern of Russian behavior means that we have not imposed serious consequences to prevent ongoing escalation in all arenas where the Russians are seeking to undermine U.S. interests.”
Russia Stepping into New and Bigger Geopolitical Role
Moscow is waging what may well be considered a one-sided war against America, playing a game that Washington refuses to join. The Kremlin took notes when it lost the Cold War and now that the US has retreated from the world stage — politically, militarily, and economically — Russia is securing its new role as a dominant International power.
It is doing this in a very Russian manner, by bullying its way into conflicts that others, namely the US, want no part of. In this way, Putin comes out as the strong man and with America retreating, he can claim success, rightfully or not.