Putin, Syria, and Why Moscow Has Gone War-Crazy

Article/Op-Ed in the New Yorker
Oct. 14, 2016

Joshua Yaffa wrote for the New Yorker about why Moscow has gone war-crazy: 

A viewer  of Russian television this week could be forgiven for thinking that the end of the world was imminent, and that it would arrive in the form of grand superpower war with the United States, culminating in a suicidal exchange of nuclear weapons. On one day alone, three separate test firings of intercontinental ballistic missiles were broadcast on state media: two by submarine, one from a launch pad in the Far East. Last weekend, NTV, a channel under effective state control, aired a segment on emergency preparedness that included a tour of a Cold War-era bomb shelter, fortified in case of atomic war, and a mention of the municipal loudspeakers that will sound upon the arrival of “Hour X.” On Sunday, Dmitry Kiselev, the most bombastic and colorful of Kremlin propagandists, warned on his weekly newsmagazine show that “impudent behavior” toward Russia may have “nuclear” consequences.
Grievances against the West and predictions of militaristic doom are not new in Russia—they have run through all sixteen years of Vladimir Putin’s rule. But they took on a heightened intensity in early 2014, after Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and the U.S. sanctions that followed. Suddenly the question of war was in the air in Moscow. If nothing else, the spectre of a conflict with Washington served as retroactive justification for the Kremlin’s policies, and a ready-made excuse for why the Russian economy had sunk into recession. At home, Russia’s ostracization was spun as a sign of its righteousness.
The war in Syria, however, was supposed to offer Russia a chance to rehabilitate its image and re-start relations with the United States. Last year, Putin travelled to New York, where he addressed the United Nations and called for “a genuinely broad international coalition” to fight the Islamic State. According to a deeply informed new book on Putin and his court, “All the Kremlin’s Men,” by the Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar, the idea, as Putin and his speechwriters had imagined it, was to “brand ISIS as the new Third Reich.” Putin envisioned a grand coalition, Zygar writes—just like in the good old days of the Second World War—that would bring Russia out of its isolation; what’s more, Putin seemed to hope that, by “defeating Islamic terrorism, the Russians and Americans would finally succeed in creating a new world order.” It would be Yalta, 1945, all over again—Putin’s dream scenario of how global diplomacy is meant to work.