Russia’s new messaging on tensions with the US - analysis

Russia’s threats to US-backed groups in Syria could also affect Israel’s confrontation with Iranian threats.

 national flags flutter on military vehicles near Manbij, Syria October 15, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/OMAR SANADIKI)
national flags flutter on military vehicles near Manbij, Syria October 15, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS/OMAR SANADIKI)

Last week, Russia’s TASS state news media reported on comments by Pope Francis. He had apparently said that “a few years ago, it occurred to me to say that we are experiencing World War III in bits and pieces. Here, for me today, WWIII has already been declared," the pontiff said at a meeting with editors of Jesuit magazines.

The reason Russian media pushed this story is that they wanted to show that the pope agrees with concerns in the West about Russia’s invasion. He has blamed Ukraine and the West for the war in other interviews, claiming Russia was “provoked” into invading.  

Moscow’s line is slightly different but the overall context is that Russia wants us to know that it is going to escalate – and it wants to push fears into the West. It knows that a recent visit by European leaders to Ukraine helps bolster the European consensus on the second largest "near abroad" post-Soviet state. The US is also moving long-range artillery and potentially advanced drones to the embattled country. But supplies are slow and Ukraine is suffering.  

Russia’s messaging is that this year marks the end of the “unipolar” world. Russia and its friends in China, Turkey, Iran and other authoritarian states have been saying this for several years. Their goal is to reduce American and Western power.

 Russian President Vladimir Putin gives an interview to Rossiya-1 TV channel in Sochi (credit: SPUTNIK/MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/ VIA REUTERS) Russian President Vladimir Putin gives an interview to Rossiya-1 TV channel in Sochi (credit: SPUTNIK/MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/ VIA REUTERS)

But Russian President Vladimir Putin is saying this more openly. "When they won the Cold War, the US declared themselves God's own representatives on earth, people who have no responsibilities – only interests. They have declared those interests sacred. Now it's one-way traffic, which makes the world unstable," Putin told the audience at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on Friday, according to CNN.

"They live in the past on their own under their own delusions," he said. "They think that... they have won and then everything else is a colony, a backyard – and the people living there are second-class citizens.”

"They think that... they have won and then everything else is a colony, a backyard – and the people living there are second-class citizens"

Russian President Vladimir Putin on the United States

Reports now indicate that Russia carried out airstrikes in Syria against a US-backed Syrian group and that Moscow warned Washington before the strikes. According to The Wall Street Journal, Russia has carried out other operations against the group, which is based at Tanf in southern Syria near the border of Jordan and Iraq. If it’s true that Russia is upping these attacks, it appears to come as NBC reported that Iran and its proxies have carried out 29 attacks against US forces in Iraq and Syria since last October. This is a lot of attacks.  

The Russian threat “led the US to quickly warn the fighters to move their positions and also ensure that no US forces were nearby. US forces did not have to move, as they were far enough away, but the local fighters did,” the officials told CNN.

“The Russian airstrikes appear highly calculated, coming when tensions are high between Washington and Moscow over the war in Ukraine and [when] the Pentagon is trying to ensure tensions don't escalate with Russian forces, including in Syria, where the two sides have operated in proximity to each other for several years,” CNN reported.

Russia wants to show the US that it has impunity to attack US-backed groups. Turkey is also threatening more invasions of northern Syria to attack groups linked to America, and Iran is attacking US forces.

All of this is evidence that Putin is putting his “multi-polar” world into action along with other authoritarian regimes. This potentially has major consequences for Israel, which has operated against Iran in Syria to stop Iranian entrenchment. It’s not clear yet how Russia may change its stance on Israel but it has recently condemned the Jewish state's operations.