The British media was gripped by the image of Russian warships passing the UK coast on Friday. The flotilla was making its way through international waters to Syria. Russian aggression against Syria has been the focal point of tensions with the West since the intervention was first launched in September 2015. Even the crisis in Ukraine has been shunted off of the news agenda.

Putin has long sided with the tyrant in the Syrian Civil War against the rebels. While the West has backed the political opposition, the Syrian regime is holding its own thanks to Russian support. The pretext of the Russian intervention was to combat Islamic State, yet the main targets were the mainstream rebel forces and the civilians in opposition-held territory. This ghastly spectacle has provoked a great deal of sympathy in the West.

Regrettably, the Syrian cause has been claimed by the pro-war crowd. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has been talking up the possibility of greater British involvement in Syria. Boris challenged the Stop the War Coalition to protest the bombing of Aleppo outside the Russian embassy. This became a major soundbite for laptop bombardiers. It’s as if Boris was transformed into a moral authority on the Middle East overnight.

Really this is the Tories looking for an external crisis to distract from the coming crisis of Brexit. It’s jingoistic bluster, and it’s all about diverting energy away from opposing the May government. Instead, the commentariat was soon calling for demonstrations outside the Russian embassy and accusing peace activists of hypocrisy. Perhaps the activists should have organised demonstrations outside the embassy and torched an effigy of Boris Johnson to clarify matters.

That being said, the UK is not about to move unilaterally to strike against Assad. Even the US and Israel are not concerned with absolute regime change, but they do want to contain the dictator and shape the outcome of the conflict. Note the 2013 deal on Assad’s poison gas cache was drafted by the Russians, and cautiously supported by the Israelis, with the consent of the Obama Administration. If the US wanted to topple Assad, it would have already moved to do so.

New Narratives

Even still, the British establishment needs a narrative. Although the Cold War long gone, the idea of a new Cold War is very much in vogue. Once again, the Russians are the menacing force on the world stage and Syria is the main theatre of conflict. Putin backs the Assad regime, so the West must side with the victim. This is an old story. The point isn’t to end the Syrian Civil War or mitigate the suffering of people in Aleppo. The point is the tension itself.

The UK is already bombing Iraq and Syria on the side of US forces. Despite the pretensions of empire, the British military must be feeling the exhaustion of 15 years of war. The army has faced austerity measures, but not suffered the same degree of belt-tightening as public services. It’s not as if the British ruling class is willing to give up Trident as an ornament of military prowess. The May government has not flinched in ramming through funding for Trident.

As Theresa May takes us into Brexit negotiations, the British ruling class will face the question of how to reconstitute the present order once it has broken with the European Union. We’ve already seen the EU is moving towards some kind of common military force. This could be based on French military might and may be the new means for the EU to reconsolidate. What Britain will look like after Brexit will have military implications.

This doesn’t necessarily mean Britain will take a backseat in future wars. The UK could engage in military Keynesianism, meaning the government could beef up the military to underpin economic growth. Some argue it would be worth dumping the nukes to do this. However, Trident is a key part of the UK’s relationship with the US. It’s unlikely Britain will give up its status as an American aircraft carrier, to borrow Gore Vidal‘s phrase.

Note the UK could turn towards a stream-lined military, but perhaps only to hold onto the nuclear weapons – which are only really useable for a first strike. This is contrary to the widespread illusions of nuclear war as a defensive strategy. Trident links the UK to the American empire via the military-industrial complex. The warheads allow the British ruling class to pretend it still matters as it clings desperately to American power.

Neither Washington or Moscow

In this context, the sight of Russian warships drifting past the UK suits both May and Putin. The UK needs threats (real or imagined) to justify its military, and Russia needs to assert itself (or at least appear to do so) for the sake of its own narrative. Old Leninists are right to insist that the enemy is always at home. That goes for the West and states like Russia and Syria. So it is worth reflecting on the Russian standpoint here.

It is not simply right-wing propaganda that the Russian government must be glad to see Brexit in the works. The possibility of splits between European powers could work to Putin’s favour. Ideally, Russia would like to see a split between NATO and the EU. This is a long way away now, but the likelihood of an EU army may open the door to a future realignment. These changing dynamics could allow Russia to continue to assert itself.

Traditionally, the Russian government prefers to deal with European governments one-on-one rather than with the EU as a monolithic bloc. This is how Putin forged an alliance with France and Germany over Iraq. But it also goes deeper than realpolitik. For centuries it has been unclear whether Russia should be understood as a European power in the Greater West or a separate cultural and national entity.

Since Westernisation is now synonymous with the disasters of the Yeltsin era, the Putin government now buttresses itself with old-fashioned Russian nationalism. Though the disintegration of the EU would be a pleasant sight from Moscow, it would not mean the end of NATO. Instead, the present situation will have to change to continue in a new guise.

Photograph courtesy of Alisdare Hickson. Published under a Creative Commons license.