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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Russian businessmen in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Dec. 19, 2016. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Tensions with Russia are hitting Cold War levels as Putin prepares for an election


Attacks against spies, meddling in foreign elections, and engaging in shadowy proxy wars may sound like something out of the Cold War, but these actions have come to characterize the reign of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is readying for an election on Sunday.

Should he win as expected, Putin would be guaranteed another six years in office, for a total of 24 years in power, if you count his brief stint as prime minister from 2008 to 2012. He's the longest serving Russian leader since Joseph Stalin during the Soviet era, and has reportedly maintained an approval rating over 80 percent since 2014. But while Putin's strong-man image may be popular at home, Russia has become increasingly vilified across the globe.

"We take no pleasure in having to constantly criticize Russia," said U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the Security Council on Wednesday. "But we need Russia to stop giving us so many reasons to do so."

Those reasons have only grown in number and intensity during Putin's current term.

Spy games

The nerve agent attack against former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in a small British town is indicative of the dangers associated with spies who defect from Russia. While Russia has yet to be directly linked to the attack, British officials have identified the agent as a so-called "novichok," a special, modernized version of VX nerve gas that is several times more potent than the original. Few countries have the capacity to produce them, including Russia.

"The UK government concluded that it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for this reckless act," Deputy U.K. Ambassador to the UN Jonathan Allen told the Security Council. "We saw only two plausible explanations. Either this was a direct attack by Russia on my country, or Russia had lost control of a military grade nerve agent which they had developed."

It's not the first time a Russian spy in the U.K. has met such a deadly demise. Former intelligence officer turned British citizen Alexander Litvinenko was assassinated with highly radioactive polonium in London in 2006.

Election meddling

Russia's meddling in the 2016 election resulted in the Trump administration slapping new sanctions on several Russian citizens and intelligence officials on Thursday, including the 13 individuals indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller last month for their part in operating the Internet Research Agency, the primary organization responsible for Russian interference.

"Little Green Men" in Ukraine

Russia's covert provocative actions in Ukraine in 2014 led to the eventual seizure of Crimea, a strategically important peninsula in Ukraine which serves as crucial base of operations for Russian naval forces. The chaos resulting from the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, which saw the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, led to a war in Ukraine's Donbass region, where pro-Russian separatists wanted to join the Russian federation.

Russia was accused of actively supporting the rebellion. Russian military weapons and vehicles flooded into separatist hands, while unnamed soldiers known as "little green men" became a common sight. They were believed to be Russian forces who simply tore off their insignia. Russian state television claimed these individuals were simply "volunteers," operating on their own will.

The conflict is currently in a stalemate, with no permanent solution in sight.

Protecting Assad

Thursday marked the seventh anniversary since the start of the Syrian civil war, and despite the fact at least 350,000 people have been killed, the fighting still rages. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been accused of engaging in chemical weapons attacks against civilian targets in recent weeks, despite agreeing to give up his declared stockpile in 2014.

Haley and other leaders in the UN have made attempts to stem the violence, but Russia, a key Syrian ally, has provided diplomatic cover for the Assad regime in the Security Council. As a permanent member, Russia holds veto power over anything the council puts forward. An attempt at a ceasefire was passed late last month, despite Russian obstruction. It was an immediate failure.

Haley has put forward another draft resolution which aims to close any loopholes Russia or Assad may look to exploit. Whether Russia will accept such a proposal remains to be seen.

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