Putin’s game

The piece has been publish on Eurasia Diary.

Europe is divided. Russia was left out in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is, of course, the West’s fault that Europe is divided. That was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s message for the people that read Bild, Germany’s most sold tabloid newspaper. But it has been the message he’s been sending the Russian people for over a decade and a half: that Russia has been purposefully and unjustly left out, isolated by the Western powers, especially the United States; that it’s time Moscow showed its worth to the world.
“If there had been political will, if they had wanted to, they could have done anything,” Putin said. But no common alliance, truly uniting the whole of Europe has been created, with NATO instead acting in breach of all promises by expanding eastwards. “They wanted to reign,” Putin added. “In the last 20-25 years, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union when the second center of gravity in the world disappeared, there was a desire to fully enjoy one’s sole presence at the pinnacle of world fame, power and prosperity. There was absolutely no desire to turn either to international law or to the United Nations Charter. Wherever they became an obstacle, the UN was immediately declared outdated.”

It seems that Putin’s time has arrived: Europe is paralyzed by the refugee crisis dilemma and Russia is the only country that makes the difficult decisions in Syria. Whether it might be difficult or not to argue with him, nobody in the world seems willing to contradict him. Not even the United States. A year ago, no one would have foreseen this turn of events. So why and how did Putin do it?
Lost opportunities, bad circumstances

The truth is that the Russian Federation is hardly a victim of the United States, NATO and other boogiemen Putin is talking about. Things are more complicated on that front than Putin is saying and is willing to admit. Europe and NATO did, indeed, fail to integrate the Russian Federation at the end of the Cold War and that is the reason why the world has a hard time dealing with the crises in Syria and Ukraine and even tiny Moldova, and had to deal with a war in Georgia in 2008.

The Western alliances integrated the Eastern European countries quite fast, invested a lot, financially and politically, in the emerging Eastern democracies, but when it came to Russia they obviously failed to reach out to Moscow.

The late Russian president Boris Yeltsin tried to forge an alliance with the US Clinton administration in the 1990s. But Bill Clinton, the exponent of an approach in US foreign policy based on liberalism, refused the idea: the Cold War was over; there was no need to forge alliances anymore. Moreover, Russia joining NATO would have been an expensive process; the Marshall Plan had cost the US $13 billion and it was a question of reconstructing only Western Europe. The Soviet Union was an enormous investment. Boris and Bill remained friends and met 18 times during their president mandates, but the US administration remained hesitant. The time they spent together could have been spent on normalization, but that was a costly, time-consuming process. As a result, the resentment remained entrenched in both the West and Russia; how do you tell people to stop resenting what they were educated to resent, to stop feeling fear for what has been the object of their fears for half a century?

Vladimir Putin himself reached out to George W. Bush after 9/11; he even suggested an anti-terror alliance. Bush also said no and Barack Obama did not change this policy when, in 2009, Dmitri Medvedev push forward a strategic partnership idea.

No real strategy

There were, of course, reasons for Washington’s reservation. A partnership with Russia was difficult to grasp: Russia was a big ally and Washington was used to dominating NATO and to a European Union that was quite weak militarily and completely dependent of Washington in terms of security. Russia was simply too much of a headache for Washington; its presence in the same alliance would have completely changed the rules of the international game, and most foreign policy makers know that the kremlin is no easy partner in anything. The American public, not to mention several NATO members in Central and Eastern Europe, would have had a hard time getting used to the idea of a “friendly Russia,” after decades they had seen it as an enemy. Of course, the human rights question marks and the oppression on political opposition did not help Russia’s case.

Foreign policy decisions might be complicated, but the truth is that Western countries, including the US, had absolutely no coherent strategy in dealing with Russia after the Cold War. Neither did Russia make too much of an effort to prove it’s a trustworthy partner. The Kremlin leadership has remained tributary to old practices of sometimes violently silencing political dissent, playing hide and seek on spiky issues at the diplomatic level, and still acting like critics were spies of the US, and frankly, acting like a bully around the Black Sea under the pretext of “ protecting Russian speaking communities from aggression.”

Yes, the Russian people widely feel that their country should have a say in international matters. Putin wants the Russians to know he’s getting the country back in the world power club so that his party wins the elections. He knows the country lacks the economic means to engage in another world domination quest like the old times of the USSR. But right now, Moscow wants back its international role.

The importance of Syria

The intervention in Syria was definitely a game changer. After the intervention in Ukraine and Crimean independence referendum, things did not look well for Putin’s plans. “I guess I’ll shake your hand but I have only one thing to say to you: you need to get out of Ukraine,” Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper bluntly told Putin at a G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia. Not many leaders shook Putin’s hand at the international summit. He barely talked to anyone actually, and even had breakfast alone.
The Russian economy was not going well either, with international sanctions and oil prices dropping. That was the tip of the iceberg, as the causes of the difficulties of the Russian economy were to be found in decades of technological backwardness created during communism and very difficult to overcome.
But with the intervention in Syria, everything has changed. Russia is again the center of the world’s attention and Putin has, one more time, managed to give his constituency a reason to rejoice. Putin was received at the White House to talk about the Middle East with Obama. Russia was again a major player. While many US based analysts and administration members still think of Russia as a regional player, the Russian narrative on Syria has been that United States and its allies have failed in the war against terrorism, that Russia is the only hope for the Syria, that all Syrian rebels are Islamic State or Al Qaeda and there is no moderate Syrian opposition, and that, despite Western claims, the Sukhoi warplanes only strike terrorists and never civilians. This narrative seems to be gaining ground.
Playing on resentments
The Russian president is known for turning a great disadvantage into a winning card and he exactly that in Syria. With an economy greatly affected by old vulnerabilities, international sanctions and diplomatic isolation, Russia was in a very tight spot. But Russian citizens are making financial sacrifices in order for Russia to be able to get its place in the world back; Putin has had the people convinced of it.

Just like in a poker game, he played a very weak hand very well: the Middle East was the only region where Russia could be assertive; Syria was the only country in that region where Russia could intervene and its military was the only way Moscow could assert its role.

Putin’s interview with Germany’s best sold tabloids does not come at a random moment. Germany is going through a lot of anxiety over the New Year’s Eve incidents in Cologne, when dozens of women were molested by an organized crowd, and the incidents are widely blamed on the refugees from North Africa and the Middle East. All this matches perfectly with Kremlin’s narrative reproduced by most Russian state media: that Europe is at risk from hordes of Muslim immigrants that foster terrorism, and Russia is the only voice of reason and the only forces fighting terrorism, while Western governments face dilemmas on immigration and human rights. His message is that Europe should listen to Russia more. His message would not go through in Eastern Europe, a region where the memories of the Soviet Union’s influence are still strong. However, in Western European countries that haven’t witnessed real turmoil since the end of WWII, people might believe in his narrative.

Russia is doing in Syria on its own what Putin offered to do after 9/11 against Al Qaeda, in a partnership with the US. When he meets Bush, if he’ll ever meet him again, he can say “I told you so!”

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