Last Sunday the American hostage Peter Kassig was gruesomely and gratuitously beheaded by ISIS militants alongside a number of captured Syrian soldiers. He was 26 years old. Just one week earlier the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event which had signalled the beginning of the end of the cold war, had been celebrated.
Throughout Kassig’s lifetime western eyes have been trained on the Middle East as the region to watch for the sort of trouble that might threaten our very way of life. The ISIS militants who lined up to behead their captives stood defiantly unmasked, inviting retaliation and vowing to bring their religious war to the streets of Europe and America. Many hailed from Europe themselves.
But while the Western media was gravely reporting the threats issued by the militants, it was also busy mocking the Russian leader, President Vladimir Putin, who cut short his visit to the G20 summit in Brisbane after his fellow world leaders ostracised him. Under the punned headline “No wonder Vladimir Putin was Russian to leave the G20 summit,” the Daily Mail told of how he had eaten lunch alone, and of how commentators had joked that Mr Putin had been ‘relegated to Siberia’ in the ‘family photo’ of world leaders.
It concluded that Mr Putin had fled the summit after a “stern” discussion with British Prime Minister David Cameron, in which Cameron told Putin that he was “at a crossroads”. Sounding wearily schoolmaster-ish, Cameron later commented “There’s a real choice here, there’s a different and better way for Russia to behave that could lead to an easing of relations, but at the moment, he’s not taking that path.”
Cameron’s comments suggest that he, along with the western media, hasn’t fully grasped the gravity of the current Russian threat. Just two weeks ago Putin took to the podium at the Valdai conference in Sochi, Russia, to declare “Russia will no longer play games with the United States and engage in back-room negotiations… Russia is prepared for serious agreements, but only if these agreements are conducive to collective security.
“Russia will not attempt to reformat the world in her own image, but neither will she allow anyone to reformat her in their image. Russia will not close herself off from the world, but anyone who tries to close her off from the world will be sure to reap a whirlwind.
“Russia does not wish for the chaos to spread, does not want war, and has no intention of starting one. However, today Russia sees the outbreak of global war as almost inevitable, is prepared for it, and is continuing to prepare for it. Russia does not war, nor does she fear it.”
Despite being a clear warning from Putin that he is ready and willing to provoke the western world into a third world war, the speech was roundly ignored by the western press. The only English coverage Breitbart London has seen so far was on the Washington blog DC Clothesline.
In some respects this is surprising, as the meme he employs – that the worlds’ foreign policy problems, most notably in the Middle East, are the result of a misguided attempt by the Western powers, led by the US, to reshape the world in their own image – is a theme that has gained much support amongst the European and American peoples who are tired of endless forays into Iraq, Afghanistan and now back to Iraq again, seemingly without end.
Yet in his insistence that Russia has been unfairly ejected from the top table, Putin will find less resonance with western audiences. In a critical piece in the Moscow Times, Russian journalist Ivan Sukhov, who listened to the speech whilst in Kiev, Ukraine, accused Putin of giving his Valdai speech twenty years too late:
“Just as this year’s Valdai Club was held not in Valdai, but in faraway Sochi, so too was Putin’s speech far from any connection with the rest of the world,” wrote Sukhov.
“Many commentators have already pointed out that Putin does have some justification for his anger and resentment toward the West, but the problem is that he attempts to explain his motives using an outdated language that nobody but Russians and the citizens of a few other countries can even understand anymore.”
Other commentators are less sanguine. Anne Applebaum, Director of the Global Transitions Program at the Legatum Institute in London, has written repeatedly warning of the emerging Russian threat. During a piece penned in October for Slate titled “Don’t Accept Putin’s Version of History,” she implored readers not to fall for his rhetoric which paints EU and NATO expansion as aggressive, arguing that they were not expansions at all, but membership negotiations through which countries were democratised, to the general benefit of their citizens.
“But times change,” she observes, “and the miraculous transformation of a historically unstable region became a humdrum reality. Instead of celebrating this achievement on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is now fashionable to opine that this expansion, and that of NATO in particular, was mistaken. This project is incorrectly “remembered” as the result of American “triumphalism” that somehow humiliated Russia by bringing Western institutions into its rickety neighbourhood. This thesis is usually based on revisionist history promoted by the current Russian regime—and it is wrong.”
Whatever the arguments over modern history, what is clear is that Putin and Russia are currently engaged in a military show of strength. The Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced late last week that Russia would be beefing up her presence in the Crimea, and will fly long range bombers along the Russian border and over the Arctic Ocean, thanks to the ongoing dispute over Ukraine.
In addition, “in the current situation we have to maintain military presence in the western Atlantic and eastern Pacific, as well as the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico,” he said, adding that the long range planes would be conducting “reconnaissance missions to monitor foreign powers’ military activities and maritime communications,” AP has reported.
In May this year, Russian military aircraft are known to have come within 50 miles of the coast of California, the closest reported since the end of the Cold War. Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman denied that these actions were provocation, saying that the Russians have a right, like any other nation, to operate in international airspace and waters.
The western voices proposing viable solutions are few. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is known to have had long discussions with Putin whilst at Brisbane, but the two leaders are squaring off over Ukraine, with Merkel, who grew up in Eastern Germany behind the Iron Curtain, determined not to let countries once again fall into the sphere of Russian influence.
The British politician and former defence secretary Dr Liam Fox also takes a hard line approach, arguing that only a display of power will deter Putin from ever bolder incursions. Speaking on the BBC’s Newsnight program in August of this year, Dr Fox said “A lot of people have been saying for a long time that Putin respects only two things: consistency and strength, and the West has not shown either of them in a very great measure.
“Putin has two views which are incompatible with our view of the world. The first is to say that Russia has a sphere of influence and we in the West believe that sovereign nations should be the arbiters of their own destinies.
“And the second is that he has said that ethnic Russians are not to be protected by the countries in which they live or their laws or their constitutions, or their governments, but by external power, i.e. Russia. That blows a hole in everything we understand in terms of international law and international norms since World War II.
Dr Fox’s proposed solution is for the West to man NATO bases across Eastern Europe in response.
“It’s very important to understand that the smaller NATO members, particularly the Baltic States who have in some cases very high numbers of ethnic Russians are very worried about this doctrine being perpetrated upon them. We therefore have a duty to maintain our cohesion as an alliance. So I would like to see more NATO exercises in places like Eastern Europe and the Black Sea, and I’d like to see a permanent NATO strength on the ground in the Baltic States,” he said.
“It’s time for us to show far greater moral strength in the West than we have shown for some time. We do have a responsibility as people who believe in freedom, security and the rule of law to stand up for those who are being very obviously persecuted in areas where we could make a difference.”