While people the world over are more interested in the November 8 US presidential election and all the succulent stories coming from the campaign trail, a crisis of nuclear war proportions is gathering pace behind their backs.
Hostilities between Russia and the United States are on the rise. Since the Ukrainian crisis of 2014, relations between the two countries have been marked by fiery exchanges of words and moves and counter moves aimed at checking each other on the chess board of global conflicts. The developments surrounding the present cold-war-like situation evoke memories of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis that brought the world perilously to the brink of a nuclear war.
On Wednesday, Nato rushed four battle groups to the Russian border in a move that is seen as linked to the ongoing Syrian war.
In Syria, the unexpected entry of Russia last year upended the US plans which were set in motion on behalf of its West Asian allies such Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to oust the Bashar al-Assad regime. When President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian fighter jets to attack ISIS positions, describing the terror group as an existential threat to Russia’s security, the US and its Middle Eastern allies had no option but to grudgingly welcome it. What else could they do? Could they have rushed in to defend ISIS from Russian bombs? Could they have convened the United Nations Security Council to condemn Russia just as they tried to do this month to prevent Russia from freeing Aleppo from the clutches of the extremists? Global public revulsion against ISIS was so overwhelming then that it placed the US in an untenable situation and forced it to allow Russia into West Asia, a region which the US considered as its exclusive domain.
Russia’s war against ISIS in Syria was quite different to the US war on the terror group, which was ironically supported by Washington’s allies. The recent Hillary Clinton emails leaked by Wikileaks exposed their ‘run-with-the-hare-and-hunt-with-the-hounds’ antics.
Outsmarted, the architects of the Syrian war gnashed their teeth and waited for the opportune moment to hit back. Turkey, part of the US-led alliance in Syria, fired the first shot by shooting down a Russian fighter jet on the border with Syria in September last year. Russia’s response was measured and more focused. The economic sanctions Russia imposed on Turkey eventually brought Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Moscow with an apology. This came in the aftermath of the failed military coup in August and against the backdrop of allegations that the US supported the coup.
Turkey then inked a pipeline deal with Russia on October 10 when Putin was in Istanbul for the World Energy Congress. This was another masterstroke by Russia.
The new pipeline will eventually replace the South Stream pipeline which goes through Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria. The latter two states have backed the European Union sanctions on Russia following President Putin’s annexation of Crimea in the wake of the US-instigated coup against Viktor Yanukovych, the democratically elected pro-Russian president of Ukraine, in 2014. The new pipeline means these countries would lose their transit fees.
Pipeline politics is certainly a casus belli for the Syrian civil war. It was not so much the Arab Spring that turned the peaceful country into a hellhole. Rather, it was Syria’s rejection of a Saudi-Qatari proposal to accommodate a pipeline that would take the two Gulf countries’ gas to Europe via Turkey. This prompted the war under the guise of a people power protest campaign. The Saudi-Qatari pipeline, if constructed, would have adversely affected Syria’s key ally Russia also, because Russia, hit by western economic sanctions and the oil-price plunge – engineered by Saudi Arabia -- is now heavily dependent on its oil and gas exports to Europe for economic survival.
There is another less-talked about oil story. In 2013, an Israeli-American joint project was set up to extract new found oil in the Golan Heights, a Syrian territory occupied by Israel following the 1967 war. Israel has no right under international law to exploit the territory’s resources. Israel’s interests would be served if a pro-Israeli government is set up in Damascus – a government that would cede the Golan Heights to its Zionist neighbour.
The entry of Russia into Syria to prop up the Assad regime has shattered the dreams of the war’s architects who did not care about the suffering they would inflict on civilians. They thought that just as they got rid of Muammar Gaddafi of Libya within a few months, they could throw out Assad also – what a costly mistake by a greedy few!
In the ongoing Mosul war by Iraqi troops under US guidance, the Syrian war architects find another opportunity to hit out at Russia. The strategy is to drive the ISIS fighters from Iraq into Syria to make them fight Russia and thereby prevent a Russian-Syrian victory in Aleppo. If Aleppo is liberated, it could mean the Syrian war is all but ended in favour of Assad.
Not unaware of this strategy, Russia, in a bid to increase its fire power in Syria, is sending a flotilla of warships, including an aircraft carrier and nuclear-powered submarines to the Mediterranean.
As Russia frustrates the designs of the Syrian war architects, Nato, on Wednesday, launched a countermove, urging its members to contribute to its biggest military build-up on Russia’s borders since the Cold War. Its call signalled the opening up of another protracted quarrel with Moscow. Nato could now tell Russia that if it wants Nato out of its backyard, then it should get out of Syria.
On Wednesday, Britain sent tanks, drones and 800 troops to Estonia as part of this Nato build-up. France, Denmark, Italy and other members were expected to join the four battle groups led by the United States, Germany, Britain and Canada to go to Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. In anticipation of this buildup, Russia has already deployed its nuclear-weapon capable Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad near the Polish border.
On Tuesday, Russia unveiled its largest ever nuclear missile which is capable of destroying the whole of France. The unveiling of the RS-28 Sarmat missile, which Nato scornfully calls Satan 2, came weeks after the Kremlin held a mega military drill over four days. The drill which involved a mock evacuation of 40 million people, raised questions whether Putin was preparing for a nuclear war. Russia has also fortified its defences in the Black Sea region which Turkish President Erdogan has said is becoming a “Russian lake”.
With Hillary Clinton, the war party’s favourite, set to win the US elections, the situation is only likely to be exacerbated, warranting the watchers of the doomsday clock to bring the long hand a minute or two closer to midnight. The clock was set to three minutes to midnight in January because of the threats posed by climate change and nuclear war. The only redeeming feature is that nuclear powers do not go to war. But that’s not a rule.