As investigations into attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election continue, more aspects of Russia’s approach to information warfare are coming to light. A steady stream of new disclosures is revealing a complex blend of hacking, public disclosures of private emails, and use of bots, trolls, and targeted advertising on social media designed to interfere in political processes and heighten societal tensions.
The possible creation of a new geopolitical reality in the Middle East may have snuck under the radar this holiday weekend. The continuing spectacle of the investigations into Russia’s possible involvement in the 2016 Election and the continued naming and shaming of corporate leaders and politicians involved in sexual harassment (as well as Thanksgiving), may have overshadowed the summit in Sochi between the Presidents of Russia, Turkey, and Iran, shortly after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited President Putin in the same city (and thanked him for “saving Syria”).
Major military exercises are never a simple routine but carry important political significance. This is the case with the recent Russian military manoeuvres of Zapad 2017, which took place in Belarus as well as in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad – bordering the territory of two NATO Baltic States – on 14-20 September. The exercise was closely monitored by European and US military and political elites and caused considerable concern in Poland and the Baltic states.
The recent statement by Turkish President Erdogan that Ankara had made an advance payment to Russia for the purchase of two S-400 air defense batteries, combined with Russia’s confirmation of this report, constitutes a significant development that adds to the question marks about Turkey’s future in NATO. This development also strengthens Russia’s standing in the Middle East, because it is another expression of the rapprochement between Moscow and Ankara. However, the Turkish-Russian rapprochement does not by itself reduce the leverage available to the West in its relations with Turkey, above all the defense relations in the context of NATO and the extensive trade between Turkey and the European Union. While many believe that Turkey will remain a NATO member for the foreseeable future, they note at the same time that Turkey is a problematic member of the alliance that is already suffering from quite a few internal tensions.
Moscow’s policy isn’t about becoming a leader in the region but accumulating influence to use closer to home.
A new balance of power is solidifying in Syria. Iran, Turkey and Russia have all played a role in the conflict there – jockeying for position and even agreeing in September to set up zones of control. But Russia in particular has deftly managed the game up to this point, and it is emerging from the Syrian civil war with a strong hand. Ultimately, Russia’s goal is to parlay its position in the Middle East into advantages in areas that matter more to Moscow. To some degree, it has achieved this, but it’s still unclear whether its strategy will be successful enough to score Russia an advantage in the area it cares about the most: Ukraine.