Hazardous Waters – The New Great game and the need for de-escalation

*Vladimir Pejovic

Brisbane, 14 March 2015 (Alochonaa): Sevastopol, a city which has been at the centre of wars in the Baltics for centuries, is again mired in a geo-political conflict. Sevastopol is a beautiful port city on the Crimean peninsula with a rich history dating back to the eighteenth century. Sevastopol is now part of the Russian Federation, its strategic naval facilities (which once housed a small Ukrainian fleet) is now owned and operated by Russia. The change in command and control is a result of Crimean revolution. Incensed by pro-Western revolution in Kiev, many Crimeans started to protest and riot against Kiev in early 2014, for independence and more autonomy. Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, saw this as an opportunity to use the unrest in Crimea to take the region in a dynamic, hybrid style of warfare. After a month of unrest in Crimea, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula (which is legally still part of the Ukraine) into the Russian Federation by running a referendum backed by unknown, highly trained Special Forces.


Sevastapol, the main port for the Russian Black Sea fleet and the major city of Crimea, Ukraine. Source: Google Images

In response Eastern NATO countries like Estonia and Poland were shocked and panicked. After all, Russia annexed part of Ukraine, breaching several articles of the United Nations Charter, and fundamental principles of international law regarding the sovereignty of nations that have developed since the Peace of Westphalia. What was to stop this from happening in the many former Soviet countries that have significant Russian populations?

The second question was, where will Russia go after Crimea? In only a few days after March 19 2014, Eastern Ukraine erupted in violence, with well-armed and well-trained ‘rebels’ taking towns and cities in Eastern Ukraine. Backed by Russian military equipment, supplies, and most likely forces, the region is now in ruins with thousands of casualties, including the forgotten victims of the MH17 disaster.

Ukraine is blaming Russia for invading its country, the West has imposed several rounds of sanctions on Russia, and NATO has increased its forces in the East and has its forces on high alert. Russia sees the Ukrainian government as illegitimate and fascist (after the Ukrainian revolutionaries ousted Petro Poroshenko), claiming ethnic Russians are under threat and need protection. Russia’s economy is crumbling, and is thus more likely has a competitive posture. More sanctions are on the drawing board, and more escalation through military aid and preparedness on both sides (for example: the number of Russian aerial incursions into Europe in 2014).

Russia in Crimea

Russian troops in Crimea penninsula. Source: Google Images

With the New Year comes growing challenges for the world as relations between Russia and the West continue to deteriorate While the war continues in Eastern Ukraine unabated despite a shaky ceasefire, the world continues to grapple with how to deal with a Russia with increasing interests in ex-Soviet territories, and its direct involvement in Eastern Ukraine.

The highs and lows of diplomatic relations

The origins of the current situation exist in historical decisions which have changed the course of West-Russian relations. After the Cold War Russia, the US and NATO sought better relations and co-operation, leaving the Cold War behind them. However, in the 1990’s the US, NATO and Russia rarely saw each other eye-to-eye, but maintained a rocky, albeit amicable, relationship where co-operation was crucial in tackling global issues. Despite the differing approaches to the Balkan Wars and many other global crises, the United States of America, NATO and Russia maintained agreements and diplomatic relations in order to ensure nuclear non-proliferation and international co-operation.

Two leaders at the start of the 21st century changed these relations quite dramatically. These leaders were Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush Junior. George W. Bush Jr. after September 11 2001, and during the rest of his presidency, isolated Russia by not including it in the War on Terror, or approaches to tackle the ‘Axis of Evil’. Indirectly, Russia was treated as a threat, enough of a threat for George W. Bush Jr. to position an anti-missile shield in Poland.

Bush and Putin

Friends? It was during former President Bush’s tenure that the seeds for the current tension with Putin’s Russia were planted. Source: Google Images

The subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were fought while ignoring Russia’s advice and its experiences in Afghanistan, while at the same time needing Russian co-operation to ensure supply lines were safe for its soldiers and military operations.

Relations with Russia until the end of the Bush era deteriorated substantially. While the United States was busy at war in the Middle East, Russia was spending money it made from a high oil and gas price on economic expansion, modernising its military, and crushing political opposition in Chechnya and elsewhere. Consequently, Russia was fostering stronger relations with China and former Soviet nations through the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), and other bilateral agreements.

The Georgian-Russian War

In August 2008, Georgia launched a military offensive in Ossetia and Abkhazia, trying to crush a pro-Russian independence movement. Russia intervened militarily, claiming that both Abkhazia and Ossetia were independent nations and required protection. Russia deployed columns of tanks and troops into Abkhazia and Ossetia, which were legally territories of Georgia.

This war was Russia’s first international conflict as the Russian Federation. The war prompted an international crisis because it was the first time since the Balkan Wars that a European country acted militarily against another.

The reason for the Russian offensive, while its purpose was supposedly humanitarian (as is its involvement in Ukraine), was both economic and strategic due to Georgia’s geographic position and its importance in bringing oil and gas to Europe.

George W. Bush Jr. said at the time that “Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century.” In another speech, he stated that “Russia has invaded a sovereign neighbouring state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people … such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century”. Poland got very worried about an aggressive Russia, while Ukraine raised the rent on Russian naval bases in Sevastopol.

South Ossetia

Russian forces moved into South Ossetia in 2008. Source: Google Images

Relations between NATO, the West and Russia deteriorated rapidly since that war. Russia invaded a nation state, but the United States of America and NATO knew that a military reaction was inappropriate, so civilian and economic aid was sent to Tbilisi in support of the Georgian government. Eventually, international observers were sent, and the conflict ended in a stalemate, with Ossetia and Abkhazia remaining under Russian control.

The US and NATO were at this time caught in the Middle East fighting dual insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Europe was entering a continuous financial crisis, while Russia reasserted its dominance and used the attention on the Middle East to become economically, politically and militarily more powerful.

The turning point in relations

After Barack Obama became elected President of the United States, a ‘reset’ of relations was attempted, which included the reformulation of the AEGIS European missile shield from Poland in favour for further diplomatic relations with the Russian government. Things looked positive at that time, as both governments tried to repair bi-lateral relations.

The ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011-2012 was both a political and foreign policy challenge for the world. Popular sentiment allowed peaceful transitions to democracy in some countries such as Tunisia, but violent civil wars in Syria and Libya followed. Brutal repression from governments to stay in power occurred in those countries, while being both supported and opposed by different stakeholders (which included for example pro-Syrian Russia on one hand, and an anti-Syrian United States on the other).

United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1973 responded to months of brutal repression and violence by Gadhafi’s military against Western-backed rebels in the country by creating a ‘no fly zone’. Russia, whose power was growing at this time, still wasn’t at a crisis point in relations with the West and co-operated with NATO and its allies in the Security Council by not using its veto power. However, while Russia did not support Gadhafi, it said loud and clear to NATO and the US: While we will not veto the vote, do not use the resolution as an excuse to execute airstrikes in Libya to support Western-backed rebels.


Aleppo, Syria. One of the places where the new impasse between Russia and the US is being felt. Source: Google Images

The resolution implemented a no-fly zone was, and eventually airstrikes occurred. The US launched Operation Odyssey Dawn, and a military intervention by the US and NATO was launched. This was a critical turning point in relations, as the Russian government felt betrayed. As Russian President Vladimir Putin said at the time: “UNSC Resolution 1973 is defective and flawed…It allows everything. It resembles medieval calls for crusades.”

Meanwhile the Syrian Civil continued, becoming the proxy-war it is today. Russia and its allies support the Syrian government, while NATO, the US and the West supports the rebels. It is a strategic proxy war because Russia on one hand needs to ensure an ally in the Middle East and ensure control of the strategically important Naval Base in Tartus. On the other hand, the West needs the balance of power to counter Iran and therefore assists the rebels in their fight against the Assad regime.

It is this active Russian distrust and strategic positioning against NATO and the West which continues today, and is the cause of deteriorating relations. This is a strategic game of chess that resembles the Cold War.

The fork in the road

Relations with Russia are at crisis-level and the war in Ukraine continues towards its anniversary. One path is a bleak and conflict-riven image which leads to a further deterioration of relations with Russia, more sanctions and armed conflict. The other path leads to de-escalation, peace and co-operation.

Thus, there are many obstacles to peace in a time where strategic positioning between nations are taking place around the Eurasian continent. Some of these obstacles are explained below.

  1. Strategic rivalry

The US, NATO and Russia are in a strategic rivalry that has encompassed the armed conflicts in the Middle East, Asia and Eastern Europe. This rivalry is known now as the ‘New Great Game.’

The New Great Game involves the control of strategic resources and territory as a priority in national planning. Russia has reconsidered its military status against NATO, and now considers it an adversary. Russian military doctrine, as recent as at December 2014, focuses on undertaking a hybrid, dynamic warfare against the expansion of NATO on its borders. Meanwhile, NATO has ramped up military patrols and surveillance, positioning forces in Eastern Europe to prevent Russian aggression, as shown by Putin’s threat in late 2014 that he could take Poland, Romania and other countries in ‘two days’.

Meanwhile, the widening war in Iraq and Syria has become a proxy war, while other conflicts take a dynamic, multi-faceted nature where Russia nor the West want to lose face.

This strategic rivalry undermines peace and co-operation in Europe, as it continues to deteriorate relations between NATO and Russia. Understanding that this rivalry exists, and finding common ground to work together, is crucial in avoiding continuing escalation.

  1. Difference in leadership

Vladimir Putin, currently President of Russia is an ambitious, cunning and intelligent ex-KGB agent who has built an image of himself as a strong, stoical Russian leader, ready for any challenge. After fighting a war in Chechnya which cost countless lives (and which the international community paid little attention to), Putin knew that a stronger Russia was a priority, and that they had time to build up while the US and NATO were busy fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Investment in military modernisation and economic growth was a priority. By 2012, Russia had an air force that matched the United States, and an economy that profited from the world’s thirst for gas, oil and resources as the Arctic melted and investment continued. Putin has successfully created a cult following, a 21st century mirror of Lenin, who is not afraid of military confrontation, using nuclear weapons, or using force to get what he wants.

Obama is liberal-minded and diplomatically-orientated who has been trying to reconnect with Russia and is less aggressive than his predecessor. Obama is as much a strategically-minded statesman who is experienced in negotiation to reach his objectives. Obama gained his popularity by underpinning American values through his investment in infrastructure, welfare and other socio-political areas. Obama is a great orator who opines in his speeches American values such as freedom and liberty, which makes him popular throughout the West.

Anyone who reads a brief biography of the two leaders understands that they are both vastly different, close-to incompatible world leaders; a Roosevelt-Stalin like comparison. This difference in thinking between heads of state requires a circuit breaker in order for mutual co-operation to continue.

  1. Politics

It is important to recognise the differences in cultural and strategic thinking between Russia and the West. Putin is not afraid of using nuclear weapons, or being bellicose and using rhetoric to his advantage. He knows that in the eyes of Russians, being strong and stern is popular and will get him support to achieve Russia’s objectives. Obama on the other hand leads a democratic republic, which needs the approval of Congress and the Senate to make things happen. Therefore, Obama has to be both diplomatic and authoritative in style and relies on public sentiment to achieve strategic global objectives, a problem Putin does not have.

Understanding the differences between the two styles of government allows an understanding of why Russia can be more aggressive than the United States. Russia is not a completely democratic country; the state has more control of media, are in place to make sure the population is compliant, and Putin’s enemies disappear or are discredited. This difference in both governments and the leaders of both countries leads to vastly different policies. The importance of understanding the cultural differences in strategic thinking is important in finding common ground between the countries.

The path to de-escalation

In order for relations to get back to normal, a diplomatic and political approach must be taken to allow a de-escalation of hostilities: a change of policy, doctrine and thinking is needed. The focus on the realpolitik of the New Great Game has to change in order to stop the continuation of the downward spiral in relations between Russia and the West.

This can be achieved through diplomacy, the sending of envoys between Russia, NATO and its Western allies, and the creation of summits for more opportunities to explore co-operation and de-escalation (such as finding an end to the war in Ukraine or the civil war in Syria).

By discussing and resolving the issues with both sides finding middle ground, and mutual dialogue, the parties in the conflict can put down weapons and stop digging trenches in anticipation of wider armed conflict. This could result in an amelioration in hostilities, more co-operation an end to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, dis-armament of the rebels and a pathway to a political solution in Ukraine and elsewhere.

However, the only way such a peaceful outcome can occur is if both sides stop looking for ways to project their power, and to outdo the other side militarily or politically. This type of thinking will continue until further armed conflict breaks out, which currently seems inevitable. If not even the shooting down of the civilian airline MH17 changed the course of this New Great Game and the war in Ukraine, what will? Can we really afford that to happen?

In my opinion, the current crisis in Ukraine is the worst military and geo-political crisis Europe has faced since World War 2. How countries deal with it will dictate which path the crisis travels. If it stays its course, the only outcome will be further armed conflict and suffering.

* Vladimir Pejovic is a lawyer from Queensland who has a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Arts (international studies) from Queensland University of Technology. He has closely followed international issues throughout his scholarly and professional life, and has become an expert in analysing conflict situations and ramifications for international law and order.

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at

Categories: IR

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