Thursday, 5th July 2018

The Putin effect remodels political values and geopolitical balance

The assault on Derra by government forces and their allies is expected to drive out the last elements of organised resistance from the southern Syrian city that launched the rebellion to overthrow President Bashar Al-Assad in the heady ‘Arab Spring’ year of 2011. Derra’s recapture will confirm Assad’s mastery of large swaths of his tortured country and the primacy of his key sponsor, President Vladimir Putin, in shaping events in a longstanding Russian ally. That die may well have been cast once former US president Barack Obama failed to cross his own ‘red line’ for large-scale intervention, when he allowed proof that Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons in 2013 to go unpunished. Washington’s calculation was that the projection of military power would complicate an already convoluted conflict, potentially leaving US troops stranded in another Middle East mire. But as Russian forces started to play a role in Syria that was far beyond the advisory, Putin found that his air power and realpolitik could have a real impact on the supposedly intractable conflict. Pending a post-war palace putsch involving (likely pro-Russian) factions in his own regime, Assad will be Syria’s president for the foreseeable future; he will owe this to Putin, who has stood by the most stalwart ally of the former Soviet Union (FSU).

In the language of Putin’s Russia, Moscow has made a vital contribution to restoring ‘stability’ to Syria, where autocracy has been shown to trump democracy after the chaos of the Arab Spring. This realpolitik success underlines the apparently ever-growing impact of the Putin effect.

Not so long ago Russia was consigned by many in the west and the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region to the status of a declining, middle-ranking power, saddled with a lot of unusable nuclear weapons and dragged down by a failing, hydrocarbons-dependent economy. Challenging this narrative, Putin has succeeded in making Russia great again by playing to his strengths, with an approach typified by ruthless pragmatism and a clear sense of the national interest – which often coincides with the interest of Putin’s ‘siloviki’ inner circle, formed of former military and intelligence power-brokers and their business allies. The projection of power against civilian and military targets in Syria has helped to cement Putin’s reputation for ruthless action that achieves results, just as his manipulation of conflict in Chechnya helped propel the former KGB agent into the Kremlin two decades ago.

The global political environment has worked in his favour, with a new generation of autocrats emerging in the Gulf states and other regions, who are more than willing to promote their version of ‘stability’ over the unwanted demands for ‘democracy’ that drove western-led policy in the last decade. And that was even before the unexpected windfall of a president being elected in the United States, Donald Trump, whose commitment to personal power (rather than established institutional) politics and ‘transactional’ approach to almost every issue, with its demand for zero-sum outcomes, is made to be manipulated by the Kremlin, while also giving a form of affirmation to the Putin style of government. This is expected to be the case when Trump meets Putin in Helsinki on 16 July, although second-guessing the US president is an inexact science.

Russia’s return to ascendency has soft power aspects the FSU could only dream about, highlighted by the undoubted success so far of the FIFA World Cup – where the authorities have shown they can control Russian’s hooligan ‘ultra’ culture when they want, Putin has basked in a stream of global ‘A’-list guests, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) for the opening match and his unfancied national team has outperformed almost all expectations. But from a GSN perspective, it is in key political and economic sectors that the Putin is most apparent:

● energy – dominant in the EurAsian gas market (where its market share in the European Union will grow further with construction of a second Greenstream pipeline to Germany), Russia’s canny role in using improving relations with Saudi Arabia to join with the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) in reversing the oil price slump has saved its and many other producer economies from even more intense economic austerity. The alliance is expected to stay in place, but is coming under some strain, with Trump now intervening in the Opec-Russia relationship by calling on Saudi Arabia to raise its production capacity and exports. Ahead of mid-term elections, and in line with his style of government and permanent electioneering, Trump’s drive to keep his domestic constituency sweet with lower gasoline prices potentially leaves Riyadh between a rock and a hard place. Riyadh has responded positively, unsurprisingly, to Trump’s Twitter assault, but MBS and his hugely experienced oil sector leadership can probably find a middle way that avoids another price slump and saves face all round. Indeed, Trump’s intervention shows the extent that Opec has returned from being a sclerotic institution whose very future was in doubt according to some analysts to becomes a born-again global player. And in this brave new world, Russia has been bolted onto Opec with a seat at the very top table in alliance with Saudi Arabia. Russia is also seeking to expand its energy business in the region (GSN 1,061/10);

● Nuclear power – Rostatom and other companies have built Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, and Russia’s determination to maintain a domestic and export-oriented atomic energy industry after Fukashima has been rewarded with a string of big contracts. Its fast emerging rival now is its former client China, while South Korea has led in advancing the UAE’s nuclear plans, but there is still plenty of scope for Russia to profit from the many projects now being discussed across the Mena region;

● Defence exports – Russia has been signing defence co-operation and procurement deals across Mena. Typical was the visit to Doha last October by defence minister Army General Sergey Shoigu, who not only signed a co-operation accord with his Qatari counterpart, minister of state for defence Khalid Bin Mohammed Al-Attiyah, but state-owned arms exporter Rosoboronexport signed a memorandum on military and technical co-operation. Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are interested in obtaining help to develop defence manufacturing and missile defence systems; also last October, deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin said Riyadh had expressed interest in buying Russia’s S-400 missile defence system (GSN 1,046/7). And Russia, of course, has historic and close defence ties with Iran and Iraq;

● Shifting the political discourse – Putin is the poster child of the new autocracy, by which even elected leaders operate with near impunity and those who were never democrats see no need to accommodate local and western demands for elections, an elevated concern for human rights and other elements of the agenda that drove the first decade of this century. Power politics in an increasingly autocratic age is an issue GSN will return to.

Projecting his power in the Mena region has allowed Putin to consolidate his popular support at home. His most recent election victory confirmed his status as a post-modern tsar who can convince a majority of the peasantry – and urban population – that he rules by almost divine right. This is not without problems, not least in controlling his difficult allies Iran and Hizbollah. Underlining the limits to his military projection, Putin has shown himself well aware of the risks of becoming bogged down in Syria, where there has been no question of an Afghanistan-style boots-on-the-ground operation for conventional Russian land forces. Relegated to the role of a marginal player by most western analysts only a few years ago, the happy World Cup host is now playing on the global stage, and that in turn is promoting Russian interests across the Mena region.

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