From Crimea to Syria: Putin’s Trans-Cyber Railroad to the Middle East

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The Russian bear has returned to the Middle East using its historical relationship with the Assad family as a springboard to manufacture more significant ties with the broader region. The Syrian Civil War became a cheap win for both the economy and Russia’s military despite the United States’ opposition to the Assad regime. Moscow has been able to use the war to build up its relationship with Iran and the US regional ally, Israel while making inroads with the Gulf States and North Africa. The goal and limits of Russia are to counterbalance, not displace the United States from the region. President Putin’s plan for accomplishing this is by becoming an alternative to the United States’ diplomatic, military, and economic weight that has dominated the region since the USSR’s collapse and the 2003 Iraq War. The bold emergence of Russia in the region comes at a time of great transition as the region turns to a period of reconstruction and the reduction of US forces’ footprint in the Middle East, as announced by Trump. Russia’s effectiveness in both the Middle East and globally in competition against the United States has been largely overlooked. The Annexation of Crimea, the savior of Assad, targeted political assassinations, and the use of cyber warfare (Hybrid) to shape elections across Europe and the Americas has been left unopposed as the West wakes up to the reality, Russia is back online. The Middle East has historically been the symbolic battleground between the US and Russia’s spheres of geopolitical influence. What emboldened Putin to take action in Syria and push to establish more significant ties is first seen in how Russia was able to annex Crimea and the response by NATO and the United States.  

Russia has found a niche way of fighting the United States on a new front that is proving to be both cheap and practical, using a holistic mix of cyber warfare, misinformation, and psychological operations. Russia has implemented a mastery of the weaponization of modern communication. The network has successfully manipulated the global political and social environment that has allowed Moscow to gain unopposed access back into the Middle East via Syria. The Cyber campaign in Ukraine, the pre-2016 elections across Europe, the Americas, Syria, and the 2016 US elections are essential steps of Russia’s overall goal of establishing a Middle East foothold while the West appears to be in political chaos and division, unable to oppose Russia. Russia’s first big push into a cyberwar against the United States was the 2014 revolution across the Ukraine border. Ukraine remains on the front lines and the sandbox for Russia to advance its cyber warfare capabilities. The outcome of Putin’s ambitious cyberwarfare project, which ultimately led Putin into Syria, and a 2019 official state visit in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 

From Crimea to Syria

The Moscow backed cyber campaign in Crimea proved highly influential on the Russian speaking population in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea peninsula. The effectiveness allowed Moscow to use the same tactic in dividing the US and European response on Syria. Social media and “fake news” became a critical cyberwarfare tactic in framing and splitting public opinion on the response that the United States and Europe should take in dealing with Crimea and later, the Syrian civil war and the refugee crisis. Through state-sponsored nationalists flavored fake news and social media propaganda, Russia sparked fear of the Ukraine revolution as being a threat to ethnic Russians, just as they framed Muslim refugee populations going into Europe and the Americas. The anxiety of refugee populations, ISIL terrorism, and fears of starting another Iraq war caused US policymakers and the general public to become divided on what constitutes a redline for action. President Obama took restraint as the former Secretary of State Hilliary Clinton called for regime change in Syria. On social media, Russia effectively pushed out far-right and far-left populist narratives that gained traction through shares, likes, and general misinformation. 

Crimea’s annexation is much more than a geopolitical land grab in Europe that exploited ethnic fear in Ukraine’s fragile revolution, but the proving ground for Putin’s mass media disinformation campaign. The perfected manipulation is right out of the pages of a ‘Twitter-like’ version of the Fear Pillar in Manufactured Consent. It was further used to push populist rhetoric and falsehoods that directly affected political campaigns across Europe and the Americas to include islamophobia in the Brexit vote, the rise of Trump/ Sanders populism, and the election of the President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro. President Macron narrowly defeated far-right and populist politician, Le Pen in France, but the Yellow Jacket protests instead took her place in the streets, fueled by online misinformation. Russia used the often described echo chambers of social media to drive polarization and divide. Widely circulated political and social ‘memes’ and fake news articles promoted, over time, a rigid division in the United States by exploiting issues such as race, religion, immigration, and US gun culture. Extremes, such as the use of Hitler in describing both the characteristics and policies of Trump, Clinton, and Obama, are now a norm in the United States. The fake online world crept out into the real world via street protests, personal communication, and the voting booth. The United States underestimated the media and social media’s power on the annexation of Crimea, European elections, and social media in the years building up to the 2016 election. Russia’s movement to get involved in Syria was also manipulated on social media to build local support and divide the United States over the use of hard power against the Assad regime. Expertise on the manipulation of communication on social media gave Russia front door access to the Middle East. 

Russia’s Nod to The Past

The USSR’s historical presence in the Middle East, North Africa, and South America was the exportation of Liberation Theology. The effectiveness of the spread of radical thought caused a series of leftist ideological revolutions, civil wars, and the founding of modern terrorist organizational tactics, such as airplane hijackings. The USSR supported, trained, and financed far-leftist terrorist organizations that operated across Europe, such as the Red Army Faction in West Germany and the Red Brigade in Italy. Each group incorporated the call for Palestinian Liberation as a core principle and morality to use violence against states and institutions that supported Isreal. In the Middle East, the USSR had funded the PLO and Black September, the group responsible for killing the Israeli 1972 Munich Olympic team. The effectiveness of the Liberation Theology campaign is still felt today with leftist groups that tie in the liberation of Palestine as a core part of their ideology and the far-right that bases their ideology on the protection of western chauvinism and white identitarianism.  

At the time, the USSR was the largest state sponsor of terrorism by using political and social ideological manipulation. The goal of the USSR, as is the goal of Putin today is to weaken the alliance between Europe and America. The same tactic used then by the USSR is being employed by Russia today, but not through the spread of communist ideology and the exploitation of local actors. The Russians have successfully used a misinformation-styled campaign modeled after the modern Liberation Theology to sow division across Europe and the United States, to include both the US and Europe. Russia has achieved its goal of making a great return to the Middle East without state on state conflict or proxy wars, the intended product of media misinformation and divide. The head of the Russian Internal Research Agency stated sarcastically, ‘We Made America Great Again.’ The modern mediums of mass communication and social media prove to be an unchecked success story for Putin in destabilizing the United States and Europe. During the Cold War, the USSR escalated violence by destabilizing western interest through existing regional and ideological partners, political players, local activists, and revolutionaries.

Furthermore, the former despot of Libya, Ghadafi, and the Assad family are examples of political players in the Middle East that gave the USSR a launching pad in which to set up proxy wars, civil conflict, and terrorist networks; and export the use of destabilizing tactics to counter the interest of the United States and Europe. Under Putin, Russia has moved back into the Middle East, as the United States underestimated Moscow’s ability to counter US hard power and diplomacy. Syria, Libya, and Iran remain Cold War historical areas that the Soviets gained inroads to a more significant presence in the Middle East. Russia is operating in each of those areas once again, to include the fighting in Libya, while also building new partnerships with Israel and the Saudis for energy and arms deals while preserving Russian relations with their enemies, Iran, PLO, and Hezbollah. Russia today has made use of the cyberwarfare frontier, as perfected in Crimea and Western elections, to gain a foothold without the use of the USSR-era terrorism that could lead to some capacity of war. 

Regional Wins and Shortfalls 

US politicians and think tanks often quote Russia as punching above their weight or lashing out because of weakness. The reality is that Putin has returned Russia into global relevance at the expense of sanctions, bad actions, and exclusion by multilateral institutions (G7) and the United States. Russia has been effective in creating relationships and building upon old ones by understanding and exploiting the failures or toe-in policy of the United States, especially during the Syrian Civil War, the ISIL campaign, and US forces’ premature pullout from Iraq in 2011. The pulling out of The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action by the United States is an example of how Russia used political pressure and military threats against Iran by the United States as a way to strengthen their ties with Iran and divide the US and European partnerships. The US exit from the JCPA is a win for Putin in the Middle East without any political fallout with Israel, Iran, or the Gulf States. 

Russia’s strength and success in the Middle East means a rise in the power and capabilities of proxy terrorist organizations, Islamists, and states such as Iran and Syria. The increase in the power of hostile actors over the last six years has proven to be costly to the United States, and the NATO partnership in many different areas, including the US resolve, trust, the partnership with Europe on Iran, and Turkey as a NATO ally. The president of France, Macron, went as far as to call NATO brain dead as it appears to have no clear goal, leader, or decisiveness in action. Russia has divided the populations and puts a massive strain on the historic partnerships between the United States and Europe, even amongst the military alliance NATO. 
The weaponization of disinformation on social media has proven to be a critical blow against the United States, allowing Russia to gain a footing in the Middle East. Four years after the US 2016 election, the United States is geared for the most divisive election period in recent history. The added problem now is that China has seen how effective the use of misinformation on social media by Russia is within the United States. Russia wants Trump to win while China reportedly prefers Biden, meaning the US may face a threat by Russia in instigating the far-right, while China stokes the far-left.

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