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Russian President Vladimir Putin

Putin’s gamble: Dethroning the kingmaker

Progressives have to learn the lessons of the Iraq war, but if that turns into isolationism we play into Putin’s hands, argues Jack Clayton.

The liberal world order is in the balance: the resurgence of Russia, the rise of China, the retreat of the United States and the fracturing of European project. Each year, Vladimir Putin increases his probing of the western alliance only to be met with empty threats. How did we get here? The answer might lie in two of the most controversial wars in modern history.

It has been 15 years since the invasion of Iraq, and yet the ripples of its controversy continue to shape western foreign policy. The fallout of this war has reignited a collective ‘Vietnam syndrome’: the loss of political credibility – and mistrust – of any leader who preaches intervention. Increased support for isolationist populism in the west, on both the left and the right, has allowed Russia to become more geopolitically aggressive than any time since the Cold War.

Sergei Lavrov (centre). Lavrov is seen by many as the architect of Russia's strategy to rupture the western alliance.
Sergei Lavrov (centre). Lavrov is seen by many as the architect of Russia’s strategy to rupture the western alliance.

The original Vietnam syndrome wasn’t simply anti-war, despite the neoconservative critique, but it was a push for more scrutiny and caution in order to avoid a rush to war. The loss of trust over claims of weapons of mass destruction has produced a new caution. It is not that west has abandoned the idea that we have a role to play on the global stage – Libya in 2011 being a good example – but the political cost for taking on the risk of intervention is now much higher. Caution in these vastly complicated conflicts is wise, but when it strays into isolationism it creates the fertile ground for Putin to test the foundations of our international norms.

The election of President Trump shows that Vietnam syndrome is now resurgent in the country that it originally came from. Despite not having a clear ideology, and despite regularly contradicting himself, for some Trump represented a move away from militarism and multilateralism. This was in contrast to Bush’s ‘War on Terror’, and a step beyond Obama’s mixture of small strategic interventions and normalisation of relations with some of America’s sworn enemies. Both Bush and Obama believed that the US could spread and defend democracy in the world – Trump seems reluctant to do it in his own country.

One of the most dangerous symptoms of Vietnam syndrome is comparing all the diverse and distinct policy changes to Iraq. This is simplistic at best; at worst its ignorant.

Trump’s departure from this foreign policy consensus has left global cooperation at a low point. Trump’s criticisms of Nato – some of which were borrowed from the Obama administration – have been an incredibly destabilising force. Obama’s argument was not that other countries should just pay more so the US could withdraw, it was that the European allies should join the US and step up to the plate to defend the liberal world order. Trump believes that the money the US is spending to protect European democracy could be better spent in his own country, although his strange relationship with Putin has raised questions about the forces behind the scenes that might be shaping his policy.





The near-success of the Bernie Sanders campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2016 showed that the effects of this new Vietnam syndrome are also pertinent on the left. We’re also seeing it on our doorstep here in the UK. Jeremy Corbyn was one of the first – and most vocal – critics of the Iraq war, drawing significant support for this position. However, one of the most dangerous symptoms of Vietnam syndrome is comparing all the diverse and distinct foreign policy challenges to Iraq. This is simplistic at best; at worst its ignorant. One shouldn’t justify going to war simply because Kosovo was successful or argue against it because Iraq went wrong.

Foreign policy was a key part of Corbyn's appeal, but is he in danger of promoting complete isolationism?
Foreign policy was a key part of Corbyn’s appeal, but is he in danger of promoting complete isolationism?

This all presents Russia with an unprecedented opportunity. When the west decided not to intervene in Syria in 2013 – thanks to an effort spearheaded by our own leader – it gave Putin a chance to position Russia as a potential kingmaker. Although this was before Jeremy Corbyn took control of the party, it was a symptom of the same problem. Instead of analysing Syria as a unique challenge, it became a new Iraq.

War is always awful and should only be engaged upon to restore peace – and there’s a strong possibility that intervening in Syria may have made things worse. However, the framing of the debate was wrong, and it even meant that diplomatic alternatives were not explored enough to offer a potential for de-escalation. Instead, the US only achieved an agreement with Assad to destroy his chemical weapons, and there have been dozens of reported incidents since, with multiple sides being blamed.

Our goal as progressives should be calling this out for what it is, while also ensuring we do not repeat the mistakes of Iraq and Vietnam

When Putin decided to annex Crimea in 2014, he took a significant gamble. The west’s minimal response showed him that increased aggression was likely to pay off. Missing this opportunity to stand up to Putin has only allowed the situation to deteriorate. Since then, Russia has recklessly intervened in Syria, costing the lives of untold numbers of innocent civilians. Moreover, Russia isn’t economically strong enough to nation-build, so there is likely to be further chaos post-war. In amongst these conflicts, the United Nations has been unable to uphold international norms. Russia has been allowed to ignore international law by vetoing investigations by using their permanent membership on the UN security council. Russia’s veto has made the west all the more powerless to influence anything in Syria.

Our incapacity to deal with the Russian threat is evident even closer to home. Russia has been responsible for attacking civilians on UK soil and has attempted to undermine democratic elections in our country and beyond. Our goal as progressives should be calling this out for what it is, while also ensuring we do not repeat the mistakes of Iraq and Vietnam.

President Obama (right) eyes Putin (left) during a photoshoot at a G8 summit meeting.
President Obama (right) eyes Putin (left) during a photoshoot at a G8 summit meeting.

Addressing the Putin challenge begins with pulling our heads out of the sand and strengthening the global alliances that still exist. This can be done through strengthening of Nato, with an emphasis on cyber security, and by governments doing everything within their power to cut off the influence of global oligarchs. Russia’s campaign in Syria looks to be ending, but Nato may have to be ready to respond if Russia decides to test the western alliance again. This is not a prospect to look forward to, but if Putin is shown that his campaign of chaos and destruction will not be tolerated, he may back down.

It could be our last chance to save the post-war order that we have worked so hard to build.

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Jack Clayton is a student at Brunel University. He tweets at @claytonj944

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