8 october 2015, the great game returns

Most things happen in degrees, and so it is with russia's reassertion of its former anti-western soviet stance: we are the other, we are a global counterbalance to you, of equal weight. While today that rings totally hollow, driven primarily by a regrettable domestic need to shore up a shoddy regime, its nuisance value is high, as are the risks of more serious outcomes. Huntington's "unipolar moment" of us hegemony (see "how we made the fatal mistake...") has long past and the world can act effectively in concert or not at all. Even without russian bloody-mindedness, syria was an utter failure for the west. Now it is worse, the latest theatre in a new great game, as russia pursues its own ends of keeping assad in place and so securing its own position to maximum effect with minimum effort. This was exactly its strategy in ukraine (see 28 february 2015, murder in moscow), a game it comprehensively won. However, there was always something special about the former-soviet "near abroad" (witness georgia in 2008 ) whereas firing cruise missiles a thousand miles into the middle-eastern desert is the projection of power of quite a different order. Nato before was ineffective. Now, as turkey's borders are buzzed and american and russian warplanes angrily fly sorties just miles away from each other, nato is alert and the number of hairline triggers has shot up. Meanwhile, opposing the iranian-backed assad, saudi arabia is weighing in more heavily on the side of the sunni insurgents. Putin's game has consistently been not about the winning but about the playing. This time the stakes are higher.