Russian offensive operations in Syria may mark a shift in geopolitics and the global balance of power - and it is a shift into a massively more dangerous world writes
Russia's use of military force in Syria is almost without precedent.
Since 1991, the Russian Federation has not struck beyond the former republics of the Soviet Union (Ukraine, Southern Republics). Before that, the Soviet Union did not intervene militarily outside of the Warsaw Pact area, except to provide arms and 'advisers'. They did repress the movements in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, but these countries were formally allies and recognised as such by the rest of the world. The repression in Hungary was particularly bloody, but the West turned a blind eye to it.
The sole real exception was the war in Afghanistan which proved to be many times bloodier and started a cycle of bloodshed which continues to this day. The intervention there began in 1979 when Soviet forces moved across the border to prop up an allied regime facing internal rebellion. Its reasons for intervention were domestic rather than geopolitical. It feared the spread of Islamic radicalism across into neighbouring 'southern' republics of the Union (lazily nicknamed the "Stans" by the US in recent years) whose people's shared a common religion, and languages with the Afghans.
Though the Soviet bloc considered it part of its sphere of influence, and it was generally recognised as such, the US decided to aid rebels there: payback for their humiliation at the hands of the Soviet-backed Vietnamese liberation movement.
The Afghan wars that this invasion started go on to this day, and have been a tragedy of immense proportions. But in geopolitical terms the original Soviet intervention had something of the character of a border war to it. Such wars have been perpetually fought by Eurasian powers as different states, powers and peoples rub up against each other in the vast interior of the landmass, an area with few natural borders. When Britain was a Eurasian power, by virtue of its Empire in India, it too fought these wars. And it too came a cropper in Afghanistan, twice.
Other than that at various points Soviet 'military advisers' have been caught up in conflicts, for instance various wars in Lebanon/Syria. But for offensive operations and being a belligerent power (World War II excepted) you have to go back to the so-called Winter War with Finland in 1939. Even then, Finland borders the Soviet Union, and was also acting as something of a proxy for Nazi Germany.
Syria is much further away and is slap bang in the middle of what the US considers its sphere of influence, something grudgingly accepted by the other great powers.
The reason for intervention is old fashioned balance of power politics. It has been forced to intervene by the prospect that the Assad regime will be overthrown. The Assad regime is Russia's last remaining ally in the region, a considerably weaker regional position than Russia has been in since the early 1950s.
That it felt able to intervene though is also a sign of the weakness of the dominant power in the region, the US. Despite Russia's comparative weakness compared to the Soviet era, it would have been hard to imagine the Soviet Union launching such strikes into the heart of the Middle East. And indeed it never did.
Of course the US remains the sole global power with bases all around the world, whilst its military spending equals the other powers' put together. But having military potential and projecting that power is not the same thing. After the debacle of Iraq and the present unraveling of a number of states in the region, the United States' ability to deploy its massive firepower is much restricted.
Certainly the neo-Conservative Project for a New American Century's contention that the country should be able to fight two foreign wars at the same time can now be seen for the imperial hubris it was. It is now not even able in reality to fight one such foreign war and it now has a Iraq Syndrome to replace its previous 'Vietnam' predecessor.
It's position in the Middle East is clearly weaker than it was before the invasion of Iraq. It is struggling to deal with the situation and processes have been set in motion to which it is having to react. It's main foe in the region, Iran, has also been strengthened.
Russia's intervention in Syria is a clear indication that era of the 'unipolar' world which seemingly came into existence with the fall of the Soviet Union, with the US as the sole, and overwhelmingly dominant world power, is over.
All the powers seem weak in relation to each other. This is in the nature of systems of competing states. Even the strongest state can seem weak in the face of multiple challenges and economic decline in relation to new, rising economies. The British Empire discovered this, as did the Kingdom of France before it and the Hapsburgs before them.
The current international alignment of forces though is most similar not to 16th century Europe but to the World of just a hundred years ago. Last year's 'celebration' of the centenary of the First World War turned out to be rather more muted than was planned, or expected. Nobody wanted to be reminded of the possible results of interstate competition as conflict burned away in Syria and Ukraine, both drawing in the great powers.
Of course the crucible in which that conflict caught light was the Balkans not the Middle East. Despite, or because, of the wars which rocked that region in the 1990s, it is hard to imagine that region's geopolitical importance a hundred years ago. It was where three empires (Russia, Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans') ground against each other whilst popular movements also increasingly flexed their muscles. The global hegemon, Britain, whilst avoiding putting "boots on the ground" as they would say today, also felt it had vital interests there and had meddled in the region for a century, starting with the creation of a client state in the 1820s.
The war that was ignited there in 1914 was primarily between powers which did not actually come into conflict in the Balkans, a fact that is often forgotten.
It was the Austro-Hungarian Empire's conflict with its upstart neighbour, Serbia, which sparked the general conflagration. Austria's ultimatum to Serbia, following the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, caused its ally Russia to intervene. It may have been separated from Russia by a thousand miles but the Tsar's regime was not going to see its most loyal ally in the region crushed. And so the first global war began.
One swallow does not make a summer, but we may yet look back on the Russian offensive operations in Syria as marking a shift in geopolitics and the global balance of power. And it is a shift into a massively more dangerous world.
Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.