The US Intelligence Community has been definitive in its assessment that Russia launched both propaganda efforts and cyber-attacks in an attempt to sway our elections in favor of Donald Trump. Perhaps Trump’s sympathetic tone led the Russians to believe that he would be less meddlesome in Russian affairs, giving Putin and his administration a pass on topics such as the annexation of Crimea and continued efforts to overtake the rest of Ukraine, and lessening or removal of recently implemented sanctions. That is all plausible, even very likely. Trump’s nationalist and borderline isolationist tone could give Russia a great deal of latitude.
Beyond the US, Russia has also launched and continues to carryout similar campaigns in Europe, supporting fringe nationalist/isolationist candidates in European elections. There could be some grandiose long-term scheme involving the dissolution of NATO and assertion of Russian dominance across Western Europe. In the short term, upsetting the NATO order could allow Russia freedom to act against neighboring states that once fell under the umbrella of the Soviet Union. Russia is neither ready no spoiling for a direct military conflict with the West, but it would certainly like to move on Ukraine and that Baltic states, the latter presenting a possibly insurmountable challenge under a strong NATO due to the collective defense provision (Article 5). To many, the idea of weakening NATO to the point that it is ineffective as a body and unwilling to protect member states seems far-fetched, but Russia clearly sees something different based on their actions.
Recent political activities and personnel shifts within the US have made the administration less sympathetic than had been indicated during the Presidential campaign. UN Ambassador Haley has been critical of Russia, perhaps signaling that efforts to undermine the strength of NATO have been less effective than planned, at least on the US front. And now events in Syria, such as the very recent gas attacks, may put the US and other partners more directly at odds with Russia given our divergent goals with respect to Assad’s regime. A direct confrontation between Russia and Western powers is desirable for neither, but conflicting lines of support and effort within Syria could serve as a flashpoint, and could be exacerbated by the relationship between Russia and Iran. Given the stakes, I suspect Russia will be more likely to relent on its pro-Assad position in order to protect its other strategic aims. However, a most-dangerous scenario could see Syria as the catalyst for a major conflict with Russia and Iran.
I support action to end the civil war in general principle; I certainly hope we have appropriately cool heads working the issue to avoid turning this regional crisis into something far worse.