‘Russia is returning to the political arena as a global player,’ that’s what the commentators are saying today—even those who don’t support Vladimir Putin.
Whether this return is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, whether it’s a threat to the world or not, these commentators are simply stating a fact: Russia has kicked off military operations far beyond its borders. A ‘regional power’ doesn’t have this kind of reach.
Celeste Wallander, Senior Director for Russia and Eurasia on the US National Security Council, calls Putin’s strategy ‘mistaken’, but the tactics ‘brilliant’. Meanwhile, Condoleezza Rice also finds room for ‘praise’ in her recent, and highly critical, evaluation of Putin’s foreign policy in The Washington Post: ‘The fact is that Putin is playing a weak hand extraordinarily well’. It’s worth pausing on what that hand has been so far.
Strategically weak, tactically successful
Indeed, the calling card of the European press reaction to Russia’s moves over the past year has been the assertion that the Kremlin is strategically weak, but tactically successful.
These assertions are put to Putin too, who sees that his ‘politics of increasing uncertainty’ are bringing results. Earlier this year, observers declared that the Kremlin would have to suddenly change the agenda in order to find a way out from the conflict in Ukraine. This is exactly what he’s done in Syria.
Despite western leaders’ frequent statements that the independent, or even coordinated, participation of Russia in the war against ‘Islamic State’ will not influence their position on Crimea’s annexation or the Minsk accords, it is clear that Putin has made a successful move, and is continuing to play his game.
This game is a bad one, but it allows Putin to stay in motion. We often see figures on the differing resources of the US and Russia, the consequences of falling oil prices and sanctions on the Russian economy. Putin, it seems, doesn’t have the resources to continue raising the stakes. But while this assertion is correct, the timeline is unclear—perhaps seven or ten years of economic sanctions will lead to catastrophic economic collapse in Russia. You can achieve a lot in that time.
'Putin's game is a bad one, but it allows him to stay in motion.' (c) Sam Churchill / Demotix. At the beginning of his administration, Putin wanted to play the ‘good boy’ in international relations. He was worried by what other people thought of him. Now though, Putin isn’t afraid of earning the reputation of a ‘bad boy’. Moreover, there are now millions of television viewers who, in a world ‘of American hegemony’, believe that anyone designated ‘bad’ is in fact ‘good’, and that all our real enemies are sitting in Washington and Brussels.
Putin’s political manoeuvres and his rhetoric have clearly continued to swell the global ranks of Kremlin sympathisers throughout 2015—a self-styled Putin ‘Comintern’ has emerged. Opponents of the Russian president may write that Putin’s sympathisers are marginal figures in European and world politics. But this is only partially true, and the growing political presence of these ‘marginals’ is growing.
It was only recently that the countries of eastern Europe were more than happy to choose European integration. Today, the prime ministers of Hungary and Slovakia are members of the ‘Putintern’. And the pro-Putin statements made by Václav Klaus and Miloš Zeman, a former and current president of the Czech Republic, does not make them politically marginal in their own country.
The ‘new right’ aren’t taking majorities in elections, but it’s clear that a new generation of right-wing and left-wing populism is making advances in Europe, and no one knows where it will end.
All of this means only one thing: Putin can feel the growing support of the ‘new populists’. It’s not enough that Condoleezza Rice sees Putin as ‘playing a weak hand extraordinarily well’: now many people on the right, and the left, who position themselves against ‘American hegemony’ are crowing over Putin. And those politicians who are preparing to fight for these people’s votes in free elections will have to take their opinions on Russia into account.
One on one
One of Russia’s fundamental myths is the battle between Alexander Peresvet, a Russian Orthodox monk, and Chelubei, a Tatar knight, at the Battle of Kulikovo. Many cultures have a similar story of single combat—one knight from the ‘rulers of the world’ (Chelubei), and another representing the ‘people’ (Peresvet), trying to defend their sovereignty from their enslavers.
Putin knows that no one will receive a mandate for strong action against Russia
From the Kremlin’s point of view, the Russian knight’s call to open battle is yet to be answered, and the fairytale opponent is yet to appear in the arena.
Judging by conversations on social media, Russia believes that Putin has thrown down the gauntlet to Chelubei (in this case, Obama), refusing to pay him his tribute, and is now standing face to the wind, beating his sword against his shield: ‘Come and fight, Chelubei!’
But no one comes. Instead, we read press releases from Chelubei about ‘how everything has its price.’
Putin knows that no one will receive a mandate for strong action against Russia. Indeed, the Kremlin views the situation roughly as follows: the US is currently governed by a Jimmy Carter-style peacemaker, Germany can’t afford a strong position for historical reasons, and the Russian financial lobby is too influential inside the UK. The confrontational rhetoric of Holland, Poland and Sweden cannot pose a serious threat.
The Kremlin will, of course, pay some kind of price for its actions—and possibly a big one. But the politics are in the Kremlin’s favour, and that’s with the ‘price to be paid’ included.
Even when faced with a hypothetical economic default, Putin will still be able to transfer power to his heir on his own terms. That’s what happened after Russia’s sovereign default in 1998, when Boris Yeltsin named Putin as his successor a year later.
The end of the partnership
The Kremlin spent the whole of 2015 expanding its influence in world affairs, and this year has seen it achieve a radical image change. Prior to the annexation of Crimea and military operations in Syria, the Kremlin had a reputation of a predictable regional power, which agreed all of its actions with its neighbours, which it considered partners.
In 2015, the Kremlin put the word ‘partners’ to one side. Now it uses the word ironically: ‘so-called partners’. Six or seven years has passed since Putin’s 2007 speech in Munich and Dmitry Medvedev’s announcement of a new contract for collective security in Europe in 2009—this was the last time the Kremlin called western leaders partners.
Now the Kremlin is saying the following: the collective security issue and a second Helsinki Pact are off the table. You didn’t agree back then, and now we’re raising the stakes. You’ll have to evacuate not only the train stations in Paris and Brussels, but Prague too.
Instead, there’s a terrible suspicion in the air: hybrid warfare—no matter who conducts it, or where—is profitable for the Kremlin. Russia is a far different source of power today than it was in September 2001.
Looking at the Kremlin’s tactics, many people see signs of the anti-liberal, revanchist rhetoric of 1930s Europe, the provocative actions characteristic of Mussolini and Hitler. And they’re right: the Kremlin is playing the ‘politics of increasing uncertainty’. Moreover, it’s playing this game whilst democracy is in crisis, and millions are on Putin’s side.