That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:
The relative lack of attention being paid to the news that U.S.-backed forces killed 200 to 300 Russian mercenary soldiers this month in Syria seems like a non-barking dog to me.
In many years, this might have been the most disruptive story, holding the headlines for weeks or maybe months. Circa February 2018, it didn’t command a single major news cycle.
What outsiders know about the event is still fragmentary, but it sounds pretty ominous. One Bloomberg account notes: “More than 200 contract soldiers, mostly Russians fighting on behalf of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, died in a failed attack on a base held by U.S. and mainly Kurdish forces in the oil-rich Deir Ezzor region.” It is described as the biggest clash between U.S. and Russian forces since the Cold War. It seems that the Russian mercenaries are pretty closely tied to the Russian government.
One Russian commentator called this event “a big scandal and a reason for an acute international crisis.” American foreign policy expert Ian Bremmer noted, “At some level, it’s startling that isn’t the biggest news of the year.” Yet I have found that I know plenty of well-educated people, with graduate degrees and living in and near Washington, who aren’t even aware this occurred. The story has fallen into a memory hole, in part because neither the Americans nor the Russians wish to escalate the conflict.
Is this unusual affair a one-off, or an indication of a more basic shift in the world? I am starting to believe the latter.
Finally, do solve for the equilibrium:
As the tolerance for particular instances of conflict rises, the temptation to allow or initiate such conflicts rises, if only because the penalties won’t be so large. Eventually more parties will experiment with violent sorties.
Here is further coverage from The Washington Post, from today, the most detailed article to date, but it is already way down on their front page.