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Provoking Russia

Istanbul.

The downing of a Russian fighter jet along the Syrian-Turkish border highlights the intense danger involved in the Syrian conflict escalating into a larger war.  The danger is not so much of a war between Turkey and Russia.  The real danger lies in provoking a war between the US and Russia.

However, with much of the western media’s attention focused on the spectacular barbarity that ISIS has carried out over the past two years, US provocation of Russia has either been overlooked or willfully ignored by western journalists.  These provocations have repeatedly occurred in Ukraine.  The  brazen downing of the Russian fighter is the first of the Syrian campaign.

In January 2014 President Obama referred to ISIS as a JV team.  He has since taken much heat for underestimating the radical terrorist group.  At that time he told the New Yorker’s David Remnick:

“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a J.V. team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”

The president has backtracked on that statement as ISIS has been able to score dramatic victories in Iraq and Syria as well as inflict a devastating attack on French journalism.  In addition, the terror group has killed numerous westerners vacationing in Tunisia, flying home from Egypt, and, most recently, enjoying a night out in Paris.

To Obama’s credit, he recently provided sober perspective regarding the reality of the ISIS threat.  On Sunday he said that ISIS “cannot strike a mortal blow” against the US and “the most powerful tool we have to fight ISIL is to say that we’re not afraid, to not elevate them, to somehow buy into their fantasy that they’re doing something important.”

Obama is correct.  In fact, he and other western leaders consider that the real threat to western civilization – the Varsity team so to speak – is Russia.  The billions of dollars the US spends on military defense is not designed to stop random terrorists or defeat an insurgent group that as recently as September 2014 the CIA estimated had between 21,000 and 31,500 fighters.  It is to challenge and keep Russia in check.

It should be clear to anybody paying attention that the US and its allies are much more concerned about a resurgent Russia than they are about Islamic terrorism. A strong Russia influential beyond its borders is something the US will not tolerate. To this end, the US has been dangerously provoking the Russians in the Ukraine since 2013. As investigative journalist Robert Parry has repeatedly pointed out, the US has supported unsavory neo-Nazi militias in Ukraine and placed the blame squarely on the Russians for the downing of a Malaysian Airlines jetliner in July 2014.  US leaders would love to push its NATO power straight up to the Russian border and contain what they irrationally see as Putin’s lust for power and the reestablishment of the Soviet Union.

It is unlikely that Turkey would have shot down a Russian fighter jet without some consultation with its US NATO ally.  It has been clear since Russia’s first bombing campaigns in Syria in September that the there was great potential for an “accident” that could lead to conflict between the US and Russia.  This potential increased after the downing of a Russian airliner over Egypt by ISIS and an intensified bombing campaign against Syrian rebels last week that saw Russia release its most impressive long-range bombing raid in decades.  The raid was not intended to intimidate the Syrians as much as it was to impress upon the US Russia’s long-range bombing capacity.  It certainly got US leaders’ attention.

The supine Russia ruled by an inebriated Yeltsin that America loved in the 1990s has been replaced by a nation daring to challenge US hegemony. It has the will and leader to do just that.

Three years after Putin replaced Yelstin in Russia, I was a US History Instructor at Moscow State University.  Often, I was cornered after class by young Russian students interested to find out what I thought of the US “War on Terror” or Russia’s new leader, Vladimir Putin.  Many times students wanted to know why I chose to study History.  One day when I threw that question back to a group of young Russians, one answered “to lift Russia off its knees.”

For all its apparent weakness, corruption and seemingly insurmountable social, economic, and political strife, Russia has been lifted off its knees.  As it attempts to be taken seriously on the world stage in Ukraine and Syria, Russia will face determined diplomatic and military opposition from the US.

The US should tread carefully.  Russia is not a small regional radical group capable of inciting terror with random acts of violence.  It is a large and powerful nuclear power backed into a corner and trying to claw its way out.

Before the US and its NATO allies push Russia more they should consider the dire consequences such provocation could have for safety and security in the region and the world.

Obama has rightly made clear that ISIS is not an existential threat.  He knows that Russia is.

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Dana E. Abizaid teaches European History at the Istanbul International Community School.

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