Russian intervention in the Syrian Civil War and coerced US military cooperation in Syria helped shift focus away from the Ukraine Crisis, which minimized fears of a third World War. The collapse of US-Russian sponsored peace efforts in Syria, along with the likely loss of Russian-preferred candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 US Presidential Election, has shifted US-Russian relations back toward a Cold War-era dynamic, which has allowed fears of armed conflict between superpower America and world military power Russia to resurface. The ultimate question is whether Russian President Vladimir Putin, or the next US President, will escalate tensions to the point that the world faces the threat of a nuclear war.
Quite frankly, the threat of a US-Russian armed conflict is always a possibility, which varies with the rise and fall of bilateral tensions between the global competitors, but it is a threat no one can anticipate until it actually happens. Unless underlying issues are address, the best the US can do is try to appease Russian frustrations and provocations to temporarily ease concerns of an impending armed conflict and vice versa. In Syria, for example, US, Russian-led peace talks and military cooperation between US and Russian forces helped avoid a conflict between the US and Russia, but they could do nothing to address the actual causes of the Syrian Civil War or US-Russian tensions. Like all superficial and dishonest relationships, coerced US-Russia cooperation is doomed to collapse into a standoff or explode into a fight, which is what is happening over Syria.
Furthermore, a great deal of the fear surrounding a potential US-Russian War stems from unknowns. Although the world has globalized in terms of culture and access to foreign lands since the Cold War, the Russian culture and Peoples are still fairly alien to Westerners, especially Americans. As challenging as it can be for Westerners to understand the Russia mind, Russians also struggle to understand European and American thinking. In the West, people know the US will do anything to avoid a world war, even though the US will defend itself from perceived threats; whereas, they cannot trust Russian leadership to respect boundaries. From the Russian perspective, an inability to fully comprehend American thinking and distrust of the US, which stems from Cold War experiences, leaves the Russian leadership to respond to all US actions as though they are threats.
Although circumstances and Vladimir Putin’s personality profile offer insights into the thinking of Russian leadership, the blunt truth is that his motivations and intentions are unknown, which leaves Westerners to see his leadership as threatening. When Russia engages in provocative measures against the US, such as the deployment of nuclear weapons along NATO borders or simulated attacks on US vessels, the most rational explanation is that Putin is using provocative measures to coerce the US into accepting Russian policy preferences. There is, however, always the possibility that Putin is actually trying to provoke, in order to justify, military action, including the use of nuclear weapons, against the United States. In preparing for the worst possible outcome, US reactions alarm and further threaten Russia, which leads to further escalations.
In Syria, unless things changes dramatically, either the deployment of Russian anti-aircraft batteries will eventually result in the downing of a Turkish military jet or Turkish forces will eventually shoot down Russian bombers targeting Turkish-backed rebel factions. When either happens, the US will be compelled to defend NATO-ally Turkey. The question is whether Russia will yield, which is essentially what it did in 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russia fighter jet, or call Turkey’s bluff, which will lead to a direct military conflict and an escalation of tensions with the US. Where Russian leadership is projecting a willingness to strike, it is uncertain how willing Russia is to risk a prolonged Second Cord War, third World War, or nuclear holocaust. In failing to offer believable insights into these unknowns, Russian leadership is feeding escalation.
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