After years of indecision regarding Russia’s strategic choices, President Vladimir Putin appears to be developing a Cold War-style foreign policy as his best option.
Putin’s new strategy is inspired by a genuine fear and moderated by a problematic hope.
The fear is that Russia may have become the target of one of those “velvet revolutions” that led to regime change in several countries in the former Soviet sphere of influence before spreading to North Africa and the Middle East.
Since Putin’s disputed re-election as president, Russia has witnessed almost daily protests that continue to grow in size.
Initially, anti-Putin marches were confined to Saint Petersburg and Moscow. In the past few weeks, however, they have spread to a number of other regions, notably the country’s third largest city Yekaterinburg.
Until now, the only serious form of protest that Putin has faced consisted of armed uprisings and terrorist attacks in Chechnya and parts of Daghestan. It was easy for Putin to mobilise Russian nationalist sentiments against ethnic minorities such as the Chechen, the Ingush and the Daghestanis. But protest in the Russian heartland is something quite different.
To be sure, the protests have not yet secured a large popular base while Putin is still politically strong enough not to feel threatened. Nevertheless, the slow burning flames of low intensity revolt could easily get out of control.
Putin knows that he is vulnerable. Many Russians who admired his iron-fist policy against the Chechens are beginning to question his brutal tactics. The last presidential election marked a sharp drop in Putin’s popularity across Russia.
At the same time, Putin can no longer surf on the economic success produced by rising energy prices. Oil and gas prices have been on a sliding curve for more than a year and, with global recession deeper than many thought, may not recover anytime soon. At the same time, the Kremlin’s shock tactics are driving away some foreign investors. Right now, British Petroleum is trying to get rid of its Russian operations.
A second plank of Putin’s economic miracle may also be in danger. This consists of massive investment by China, especially in infrastructure projects in Siberia and the Far East where Vladivostok is being developed as a hub of trade and industry for Russia, China, South Korea and Japan. However, China’s own economy is slowing down, making it harder to sustain high levels of foreign investments.
According to the best estimates, the Russian economy is heading for a recession with an average of 3,000 jobs lost each day.
Putin’s promise of increasing military expenditure by a whopping 21 percent is no longer likely to be fulfilled.
Countering the fear of a “velvet revolution” is the hope of creating a new power bloc with Russia in a leadership role.
Putin’s analysis suffers from a contradiction at its heart.
On the one hand, he believes that the United States is behind “plots” that have brought regime change in so many countries. A spook by training and career, Putin cannot conceive of major events happening without some degree of conspiracy at their source.
On the other hand, Putin also believes that the United States, led by President Barack Obama, has embarked on a historic retreat that will leave behind vast empty spaces that Russia could hope to fill. If Obama were re-elected, Russia would have four more years in which to assert its leadership in Transcaucasia, Central Asia and the Middle East.
It is in that context that Russia is determined to have a leadership role in shaping Syria’s future. However, Putin’s attempts at creating a Moscow-Tehran-Beijing axis are not aimed at keeping Bashar al-Assad in power. The aim is to make sure that al-Assad’s inevitable demise does not lead to Russia’s exclusion from Syria.
There was a time when Russia, in its Soviet version, posed as the principal big power presence in North Africa and the Middle East. Over the past 20 years, however, Russia has lost virtually all its positions in a region that forms a key segment of its geopolitical habitat.
Putin is unable to prevent regime change in Syria. Under any configuration, President al-Assad has already scripted himself out of Syria’s future. However, Putin could significantly slow down the inevitable change in Syria, increasing the price that the Syrian people would have to pay to secure their freedom.
Even if the future of Syria were not at stake, the Western democracies and their Arab allies would still face the problem of how to weave Russia into the new geo-strategic pattern that is emerging in North Africa and the Middle East.
The Russian people, either in another election or in a popular uprising, will ultimately decide Putin’s fate. For the time being, however, chaos in Russia is in no one’s interest.
Russia is not the Soviet Union. It may be an adversary but it cannot be regarded as an enemy posing an existential threat. As a major regional power, Russia is demanding a seat at the high table. There is no reason why it should not be accommodated where and when possible. Left to its own devices, Russia will be unable to make a positive contribution to regional peace and stability. On the contrary, it may ally itself with adventureist regimes such as the one in Tehran with the aim of making mischief.