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Making The World Safe For Dictators

  • Brian Whitmore

War without end. (Cartoon by Sergei Elkin, RFE/RL)

War without end. (Cartoon by Sergei Elkin, RFE/RL)

A funny thing happened when the shaky ceasefire brokered by Russia and the United States kicked in this week in Syria.

Almost immediately, Moscow began re-escalating the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Pro-Moscow separatists increased their attacks near Luhansk, intensified their shelling of four villages in the Donetsk region, and moved 88 tanks up to the cease-fire line near Debaltseve.

It was all as cynical as it was predictable.

It's happened before, after all -- albeit in reverse: when Russia intervened in Syria's civil war back in September, it promptly de-escalated in Donbas.

Moscow's bait-and-switch tactics illustrate that Ukraine and Syria are two fronts in one war that Vladimir Putin's regime is waging on the West and on the post-Cold War international order.

Putin wants a world without rules, one where might makes right; One divided into spheres of influence in which great powers decide the fates of small nations.

WATCH: The Daily Vertical -- Putin's Bait And Switch

And he wants to make the world safe for dictators -- whether they be Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, Ukraine's Viktor Yanukovych, Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, or Syria's Bashar al-Assad.

"The Russian president wants to win the ideological debate with the West, by showing that democratic regime changes and humanitarian interventions sow chaos, and that supporting 'legitimate' regimes can be a way of resolving crises more fruitfully," Kadri Liik, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote recently.

This means propping up autocrats, like Assad. And when that fails, as was the case with Yanukovych, it means manufacturing counterrevolution and mayhem.

In this sense, Putin has conflated the pro-Western colored revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia with the chaos that erupted in the Middle East in the aftermath of Arab Spring.

Putin's antirevolutionary fervor, and his desire to establish Russia as a conservative bastion of traditional values, is reminiscent of the Holy Alliance, the partnership among the monarchies of Russia, Austria, and Prussia in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

Just as the Holy Alliance sought to protect the divine rights of kings, Putin is seeking to preserve what he sees as the inalienable right of autocrats to rule unhampered.

The difference, of course, is that in 1815, Russia's aims were largely shared by other European rulers and it had the staunch backing of two of the continent's strongest powers -- Prussia and Austria -- in its antirevolutionary crusade.

Today, the Kremlin's crusade is supported by...Marine Le Pen.

"Kremlin policy envisions a global struggle between sovereignty and outside interference, while the West prefers casting it as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism," political commentator Ivan Krastev, head of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, wrote in a recent commentary.

Ukraine and Syria also represent two steps in Putin's quest to restore what he sees as Russia's imperial greatness.

In Ukraine he is trying to demonstrate his mastery over the former Soviet space; in Syria he is trying to lay claim to the mantle of world power.

He needs both. And any de-escalation on one of these fronts, will invariably be accompanied by an escalation on the other.

Putin is at war with the West, and he is not going to stop until he gets what he wants -- or until he is defeated.

"Russia is seeking to undermine what the West considers the global institutional order, and not because it wants to return to Soviet 'imperialism,' but because it has chosen to champion the fight against worldwide revolution led, it believes, by Washington," Krastev wrote.

"That formula has the potential to provoke endless conflict."

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to today's Power Vertical Podcast where I will discuss the topics raised in this post with guests Michael Weiss, Kadri Liik, and Andreas Umland.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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