The new Russian power bloc

A quarter century after Mikhail Gorbachev supervised the collapse of Europe’s cold-war division, a world of new dividing lines is emerging—with Vladimir Putin playing an active part in inscribing them.

Arash Falasiri
4 April 2014
Erdogan meets Putin against backdrop of Turkish and Russian flags in St Petersburg.

New world order? An official photo of Putin and Erdogan in St Petersburg in December. Wikimedia / Creative Commons.It may have been a symbolic gesture when other world leaders suspended Russia’s membership of the G8 during the third Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands in late March, even as they declared that they “remain ready” to intensify sanctions if Russia were to take further action in Ukraine. Warning of this possibility, the US president, Barak Obama, described Russia as acting “out of weakness” and risking becoming an “internationally isolated country”.

But while many Western leaders considered their “sanctions would hit Russia very badly”, as the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, put it, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, appears set on a long-run political plan, even if short-term economic losses have to be taken. And his ambitions may go beyond transforming Russia from the “regional power” of Obama’s condescension to a global one.

Western perspective: economy

Expressing satisfaction that the West was united in punishing Russia, if it did not reverse course, a US official said: “The cost is far greater for the Russians, who stand to lose much more.” Some experts suggest that the impact of sanctions on Russia’s stock markets will amount to millions of dollars a day. The head of its largest bank, the state-owned Sberbank, has warned Russia is at risk of recession. And the deputy economy minister has estimated capital flight in the first quarter of 2014 at up to 50 billion euro.

Putin’s gesture showed he had no reservations about supporting Sisi, even though his crackdown on the opposition had left hundreds of dead and thousands jailed

Less bullishly, however, Rutte conceded that sanctions might “hurt people in Europe and North America”. And he guaranteed that Western decision-makers would try to “design these sanctions in such a way that they will have maximum impact on the Russian economy and not on the Western world”. But EU members’ reliance on Russian energy could prove a critical deterrent against further action. If 40% of Russian gas is shipped through Ukraine, 35% of EU demand for fossil fuels, oil and gas, is met by Moscow. And while Obama said that “energy is obviously a central focus of our efforts”, he told the EU that it could not rely on the US alone to reduce its dependency on Russia.

Before the Crimean parliament resolved to enter the Russian Federation, Putin claimed that since the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq the US had lacked moral authority, while the EU would be unable to manage another financial crisis. In that context, the key invocation in his speech to the Russian parliament was: “Let’s start the procedure.”

Eastern perspective: politics

While some experts have suggested Russia’s action in Crimea has been a reflex response to its loss of influence in Kiev, in a longer-term perspective Putin’s behaviour is based on a post-imperial complex, as a leader longing to reconstitute a new power bloc. Not only Western governments and Russia’s neighbours but many other countries will be faced with this emerging coalition.

Take Iran and the nuclear question. With Russia the most “supportive friend” to the Islamic regime among UN Security Council members, Putin has been able to play a double role vis-à-vis the West and Teheran. While there are many economic and military reasons for the close relationship between the two countries, this pivotal position has benefited Russia regionally and internationally. Notably, Iran, the world’s largest source of natural gas, tries to play a pro-Russian role in the European energy market by concentrating only on Asian demand.

Egypt is another example. The visit to Russia in February by the army chief and prospective presidential candidate, Abdel el-Sisi, came against a background of soured relationships with the US, Egypt’s long-time ally and military patron: Washington suspended some of its $1.5bn annual aid, most of which goes to the Egyptian military, following the latter’s deposition of the Islamist government last July. Although an Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesperson insisted that the Moscow visit was not intended to be “against anyone”, rather to “diversify partners”, Putin said he would support the general’s presidential bid—and both Russian and Egyptian media carried reports of a $2bn arms deal.

Putin’s gesture showed he had no reservations about supporting Sisi, even though his crackdown on the opposition had left hundreds of dead and thousands jailed, including journalists who had ventured to criticise the regime. And the visit marked a significant tilt by Egypt, following the suspension of US and European aid.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Iran is acting as Russia’s advocate in supporting Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Turkey had been the most influential opponent of the Assad regime in the region. The recurring protests in its major cities have however led Ankara not only to suppress civil-society organisations but also to review its policy on Syria. Some analysts suggest that Iran has convinced the Turkish government, to sustain its authority, to shift towards the Eastern bloc.

The prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, had aspired to Turkey joining the EU from his time as mayor of Istanbul in the mid-1990s. But as he brands his opponents and protesters “terrorists”, supposedly guided by some Western countries, it seems he has revised his plan and shifted Turkey’s orientation eastwards. Although the situation between Turkey and Syria is still very critical, Iran is trying to reduce tensions to undermine US strategy and form an alternative regional coalition in favor of the Eastern powers. Even Iraq, under Saddam Hussein an ally of Russia, is moving toward this bloc, under the considerable influence of Iran on its Shia-dominated government.  And while the Arab League summit in Kuwait in late March underlined its divisions over Syria, Lebanon—or at least its dominant Hizbullah faction—is another supporter of the regime in Damascus.

Telling evidence

Obama’s first visit to Saudi Arabia days later provided telling evidence of the emergence of a new bloc. White House positions, particularly its eventual support for the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and its failure to secure support for the rebels in Syria, have shocked the Saudi royal family and raised concerns that backing from the US, despite its reliance on Saudi oil, could not be relied on in future. According to Saudi media reports, anxieties over the Syrian civil war and US nuclear negotiation with Iran were top of King Abdullah’s concerns.

The main mission of Obama’s visit was to assure the Saudis that he was not neglecting them: officials conceded “tactical differences” but claimed “strategic interests” were aligned. And the Washington Post reported that the US was ready to increase covert aid to Syrian rebels under a “new plan” which included training by the CIA. Yet while Saudi Arabia, the most powerful Sunni country, needs solid guarantees from the US to remain an ally, Iran, the most powerful Shiite state, leans towards the Eastern power configuration and encourages other regional governments to join this emerging bloc.

The latest Freedom House report suggests that 80% of Russians believe that political and economic strength are more important than a “good democracy”. (Meanwhile, 84% of Chinese are strongly supportive of their government and believe that China is able to propose an alternative to “Western” democracy.) Even if for Obama “Russia is only a regional power”, to challenge his view Russia seems already to have set in train its own political scenario. To halt the “NATO progress toward the East”, as the Russian media put it, as well as achieving a more influential role, the Kremlin has started its procedure. 

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