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The Matryoshka, the famous Russian wooden doll which has another smaller doll within it, and yet another, and then another, and so on. Innocuous by itself, the doll represents a type of cultural mind set that typifies Russian cultural and political thought – not unlike its love for chess.

The common thread being the separation of a whole into its parts – each having its own purpose in achieving the goal. Nowhere is the Matryoshka Complex more evident than in Russia’s conduct within the international community of today.

Take, for instance, Russia’s strategy in the Middle East and vicinity. In 2011 Russia, with China, failed to use their veto at the United Nations to block Western intervention in the Libyan civil war, which resulted in the bloody over throw of the notoriously iconic Muammar Gaddafi. A peculiar diplomatic move given Russia’s long relationship with the former dictator. Yet, brilliant in the sense that the world, and most particularly the nearby regional despots, could witness the consequences of unbridled “Western military aggression”. The message was clear to the region: without Russian support any and all dictatorships in the region were at risk of a similar fate.

Next up was the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government by the Egyptian military in 2013. While the West routinely condemned the over throw of a duly elected government, the Russians were far more muted in their response. The result has been an ever warming relationship between Russia and Egypt, which has resulted in a deepening military relationship between the two. The same can be said for Iran, North Korea, and even countries like Iraq.

Then of course there is Syria. It is Syria that Russia chose to show the world what an alliance with Russia means. Russia patiently sat back and watched as Syria was torn apart by, as they would say, Western-backed militias. Then, as the fall of their loyal ally became apparent, Russia intervened. What appeared to be a certain defeat for Syrian President Assad was reversed by the force of Russian arms. A dramatic intervention in the best traditions of the Russian ballet. Russia was not just seeking to save an ally, but rather it was sending a message throughout the region: without Russia you are lost, but with Russia you are safe.

One can look at all these conflicts in isolation. It’s the simple thing to do. However, you do so at your own peril. Just like the Matryoshka doll, each fits one within the other to form the whole. Each is separate, yet each is that much less without the other. All are hidden from sight without taking them apart piece by piece. If you wish to understand the Russians, you must correctly understand the doll they are building.