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October 12, 2016

Are we headed towards a military east-west confrontation?

Of all the crises faced by the west and by Europe in particular, the potentially most serious one is a flare-up of the old east-west conflict. The chances of that happening have risen dramatically in the last few weeks - beginning with the US decision to suspend talks with Russia over a ceasefire in Syria, and Russia's immediate response to cancel the plutonium agreement with the US.

Yesterday's big news is that Vladimir Putin has cancelled a visit to Paris after the Kremlin accused France of seeking to humiliate Putin. What was this humiliation about? On TV, ahead of a popular entertainment show, François Hollande told the public that he might refuse to meet Putin, who was due to come to France next week, and planned to downgrade the trip to a “working visit based on Syria”. The build-up to this story was that the Russians had vetoed a French UN resolution calling for an immediate halt to Russian bombing of Aleppo. The veto was expected, also by the French. Hollande added oil to the fire implying that Russia could face war crimes charges over its bombardment of Aleppo. While the way he talked about it was theoretical, its impact was not.

What exactly is the strategic aim behind the French confrontation? Do they hope to be helpful in the conflict between Washington and Moscow? Is it the result of moral conscience or political posturing? There is a clear risk of escalation here. They are symbolic gestures that could cause a lot of damage, solve nothing, and another sign of amateurism in their approach towards Syria, concludes Caroline Galactéros in Le Figaro. It could put into danger the peace process in the Ukraine, an initiative of Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande, remarks Le Monde. And don’t be fooled, presidential elections are around the corner, so the media image and short-term considerations might become more prominent. Francois Heisbourg tweeted that, with this cancellation, Putin makes life a lot easier for Hollande. Though this could turn into a serious problem if the meeting in Berlin October 19 with Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the Ukrainian president Petro Porochenko is compromised.

Writing in Corriere della Sera Franco Venturini notes that a super-power confrontation is not imminent, but the risks of such a cataclysmic event have clearly risen, and it could be triggered through an incident or a provocation. And neither Russian nor US politics is currently able to control a confrontation that might be actively supported by sections of the military, by the military-industrial complex, and nationalist hardliners on both sides. And a lot of provocation is going on: Russian hackers who are interfering in the US presidential elections; the violation of the no-flight zone in Syria; or the stationing of Iskander missiles near Kaliningrad.

We also note a comment by Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie in Moscow, who notes that the cancellation of the plutonium agreement would not have been problematic in itself, but it makes further US-Russian arms controls efforts impossible. The next agreement to fail could be the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Russia is acting the way it does because it calculates that the Obama administration is not going to launch a full-scale war in its dying days. He warns of an escalation in the war in Syria if the rebel forces obtain the ability to shoot down Russian aircraft. This is his disturbing conclusion:

"Syria, for most of 2016 the site of US-Russian collaboration, could easily turn into a battlefield between the two — with the proxies first taking aim at the principals, and the principals then shooting back not at the proxies, but at each other. This is an exceptionally disturbing prospect that should keep people in Moscow and Washington awake at night. But the new highly asymmetrical relationship between the two powers leaves almost no room for mutual respect."

And finally, we note a story in Die Welt, according to which a senior German civil servant is moving direct from the energy ministry to the board of Nord Stream 2, which is part of Gazprom. What we find strange is that the journalists look at this entirely as a problem of high-level officials turning into lobbyists, while the real issue is that it cements the German-Russian relationship at a time like this. 

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