The Big Chill

Barack Obama’s Wrong: The New Cold War's Only Just Begun

From propaganda to missile deployments, Russian leader Vladimir Putin is testing Obama’s resolve—while claiming to be America’s victim.

10.11.16 5:02 AM ET

In one of the better studies of Putinology to appear in the last year, Mikhail Zygar’s All the Kremlin’s Men does much to upend the conventional wisdom about U.S.-Russian relations, particularly as offered by the American architects of those relations over the past eight years.

“Vladimir Putin,” Zygar writes, “did not like the new American president from the start. For him, Barack Obama was both soft and intractable… Paradoxically, Obama, the most idealistic and peace-loving U.S. president in living memory, became a symbol of war in Russia, a target for Russian state propaganda and racist jokes, and a hate figure for millions of patriotic Russians. He was caricatured as an ill-fated enemy doomed to be defeated by Vladimir Putin.”

Surveying some much-buried news over the last seven days, one begins to appreciate the weight of this grim appraisal.

On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry called for Russia to be investigated for war crimes in Syria, following extensive documentation of Russian warplanes targeting civilian structures such as hospitals and schools with incendiary munitions and now heavy-duty bunker busting bombs.

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has accused Moscow of abetting “barbarism” in Syria; and Washington has also accused the Kremlin of purposefully bombing a UN aid convoy in northern Syria last month, a claim which open source investigation has corroborated.

Also, on Friday, Estonia’s security establishment reported that Russia is deploying Iskander-M ballistic missile systems to the Kaliningrad exclave, a long-bruited contingency that was first introduced by Russia’s then-placeholder president, Dmitry Medvedev, on Nov. 5, 2008—exactly a day after Obama’s election.

The Iskander-M, capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear warheads, poses a direct threat to U.S. allies in Eastern Europe, and will be arriving at a time when Russia’s deployed nuclear arsenal has now outstripped America’s by 429 warheads. As The Daily Beast reported, this exceeds the cap on warheads, set to be fully in place by 2018, as agreed to in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, although the numbers could well vary until then. (The Iskander intelligence coincided with the alleged violation of Estonian and Finnish airspace by Russian Su-27 jet fighters.)

But Russia hasn’t only been amassing a new arsenal in Europe.

In the fortnight following a collapsed U.S. and Russian brokered “ceasefire” for Syria, Putin has doubled supply runs by air and sea of materiel intended to bolster the Assad regime, according to Reuters. In all likelihood, the supplied are intended to help it and its Iranian proxies retake rebel-held eastern Aleppo.

The cargo has included the revamped S-300VM antiaircraft missile system, which can (theoretically) take out U.S. warplanes should any come within range. The Kremlin’s chief media mouthpiece, the U.S.-sanctioned Dmitry Kiselyov, who hosts the tabloid propaganda show News of the Week, was straightforward: “We’ll shoot them down.”

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov has all but threatened to do just that, amid recent disclosures that the Obama administration may be mulling a military confrontation with the Assad regime, as recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and CIA, both of which fear that the fall of Aleppo would exacerbate U.S. terrorism threats.

In response to White House spokesman Joshua Earnest’s questioning Russia’s need for advance anti-aircraft deterrent when Russia’s year-long intervention in Syria was meant to target ISIS, whose aerial component has yet to announce itself, the Twitter account of the Russian embassy in the U.S. posted a mocking image responding, “Because you never really know what kind of assistance terrorists might get.”

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After coalition aircraft accidentally bombed Syrian soldiers in Deir Ezzor, Russian officials have openly taken to accusing the United States of supporting ISIS in Syria, whereas this campaign of conspiratorial disinformation had previously been more characterized by whispers and nudges, principally in the Baghdad operations room where Russian army officers and spies work cheek-by-jowl with Iranian counterparts and with Iranian-built Shia militias.

Vladimir Putin either means business or wants to project the image of a man who does.

He suspended his country’s cooperation in a 16-year-old plutonium clean-up pact, as well as a 2013 nuclear research and development agreement and another bilateral program reconfiguring reactors to obviate their use of weapons-grade uranium.

Putin has demanded, as the price for restoring at least the first frozen accord, that Washington end all sanctions against Russian officials; pay reparations for any losses sustained from those sanctions as well as retaliatory ones imposed by Russia against U.S. entities; cancel the Magnitsky Act, a landmark human rights law passed in 2012 aimed at penalizing corrupt and murderous Russian officials; reduce NATO personnel forces to levels they were as of 2000; and essentially rewrite the original radioactive disposal deal so America bears the brunt of the responsibility for it.

In response to what was, even by Putin’s standards, a risible attempt at extortion, the Russian opposition’s Leonid Volkov wrote on Facebook: “He should have asked for Alaska back, eternal youth, Elon Musk and a ticket to Disneyland.”

Adding to this world-hum of Cold War paranoia and hyperbole, Putin’s state media organs, including TV Zvezda, a channel owned and operated by the Russian defense ministry, have begun speculating that the roiling conflict in the Middle East could lead to imminent nuclear war with the West.

Recently, a Russian weatherman on state-owned Rossiya-24 outlined ways in which a Russian nuclear strike in Nebraska could strategically cripple U.S., Canadian, and Mexican communications.

Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations has announced that 40 million citizens will take part in a “fire drill,” popularly and traditionally seen as precautionary measures (such as they are) in the event of a nuclear war, an event which Kiselyov, on News of the Week last night, said may well follow “impudent behavior.”

That would seem to constitute everything and anything America does or does not do of late. And what a turn for Obama, who has spent the last eight years insisting that the “Cold War is over” only to spend the eve of his departure witnessing its renascence.