Putin’s trump card

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

At his an­nual year-end press con­fer­ence, Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin was as in­for­mal, au­da­cious, and of­fen­sive as his favourite Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, Don­ald Trump. He an­swered a ques­tion about the state of the coun­try with a joke. “How’s life?” one man asks an­other. “My life is all stripes, black stripes fol­lowed by white ones,” the sec­ond man an­swers. “Now I’m in the black one.”

Six months later, they meet again. ”How’s life?” the first man asks again. “I know it’s all stripes, but which one is it now?”

“It’s black now,” the sec­ond man replies. “Looks like it was white last time.”

The rest of Putin’s press con­fer­ence was as cyn­i­cal as this re­veal­ing wit­ti­cism. He re­peat­edly claimed that Rus­sia and its rapidly col­laps­ing econ­omy are thriv­ing – some­thing not even his most ar­dent supporters be­lieve.

Af­ter 15 years of per­for­mances like this one, I am used to Putin’s Or­wellian dou­ble­s­peak – war is peace, ig­no­rance is strength, etc. But on this oc­ca­sion, he took his bom­bast to an­other level.

Putin in­sisted that the drop in Rus­sian GDP – some 3.7% in the last year – had been caused pri­mar­ily by plum­met­ing oil prices, offering only a brief men­tion of the Western sanc­tions im­posed in re­sponse to his an­nex­a­tion of Crimea. And while he boasted that Rus­sia has $364 bln in for­eign-cur­rency re­serves, he de­clined to note the coun­try’s crip­pling 12.3% an­nual in­fla­tion rate or that much of those re­serves have al­ready been pledged.

Putin’s in­sis­tence on the health of the Rus­sian econ­omy calls to mind his own joke. Con­trary to his as­sur­ances, the cur­rent black stripe is likely to seem white in com­par­i­son to what is to come.

In­deed, ear­lier last month, a group of Rus­sian econ­o­mists de­scribed the gov­ern­ment’s pre­dic­tions of a re­bound next year as sorely “out of touch.”

The an­nual press con­fer­ence also pro­vided Putin an op­por­tu­nity to put Rus­sia’s in­volve­ment in Syria in a pos­i­tive light, and took pains to do so. Af­ter all, even with the se­crecy that usu­ally sur­rounds Rus­sian mil­i­tary losses, it will be hard to tem­per pub­lic dis­con­tent once the coffins start com­ing home.

He as­sured the world that Rus­sia would not be “more Syr­ian than Syr­i­ans them­selves,” and he in­sisted that the United States should not dic­tate the coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal process.

Amer­i­can pol­icy in the Mid­dle East has been so in­co­her­ent, he says, that it war­ranted Rus­sian in­ter­ven­tion. Putin also sug­gested – de­spite all the ev­i­dence to the con­trary – that Rus­sia’s pres­ence in Syria would not ex­tend be­yond the res­o­lu­tion of the con­flict. But Rus­sia al­ready has naval and air bases in Tar­tus and Latakia – as­sets that Putin is com­mit­ted to de­fend­ing.

In­deed, Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea and in­va­sion of east­ern Ukraine sug­gest that Putin gath­ers ter­ri­to­ries; he does not give them up – at least not with­out get­ting some­thing in re­turn. He once lauded Cather­ine the Great as his favourite Rus­sian ruler: “She shed less blood, but amassed more land than Peter the Great.” In 1772, Cather­ine sent a war­ship to Syria to as­sist the lo­cals in fend­ing off the Ot­toman Em­pire. Two years later, she chose to leave the re­gion, sat­is­fied with Ot­toman con­ces­sions on Crimea. Putin ap­pears to want a sim­i­lar out­come.

Like Cather­ine, Putin, hopes to trade off his in­va­sions. Ukraine clearly re­mains Rus­sia’s top pri­or­ity. By in­ter­ven­ing in Syria –a con­flict of pri­mary con­cern to Europe and the US – the Krem­lin feels it has ac­quired lever­age over Ukraine’s Western part­ners. The con­se­quences – in­clud­ing mil­i­tary ca­su­al­ties and the threat of re­tal­i­a­tion by the Is­lamic State – pale in com­par­i­son to the pos­si­bil­ity of a grand bar­gain that se­cures his gains closer to home.

Putin is so con­fi­dent that he holds all the cards that he made a point of ton­ing down his usual anti-Amer­i­can blus­ter. He said he sup­ported US Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry’s ef­forts to ad­dress jointly is­sues “that can be re­solved only to­gether,” and that he was ready to “work with any pres­i­dent voted in by the Amer­i­can peo­ple.”

There is lit­tle ques­tion, how­ever, about which US can­di­date Putin would like to see in the White House. In re­marks fol­low­ing the press con­fer­ence, he praised Trump as “a very color­ful, tal­ented per­son” and the “ab­so­lute leader of the pres­i­den­tial race.”

The two men cer­tainly de­serve each other. Both are con­sum­mate pro­pa­gan­dists and per­form­ers. And both are pre­pared – even ea­ger – to bully, ha­rangue, and lie to get ahead. Com­pare Trump’s ad­vice from his book How to Get Rich (“When some­body hurts you, just go af­ter them as vi­ciously and as vi­o­lently as you can”) with Putin’s de­scrip­tion of how to fight ter­ror­ists (“We will hunt them down and kill them, even in a toi­let”).

Trump has built his cam­paign on ig­no­rance dressed up as strength. His sim­plis­tic slo­gan – “Make Amer­ica Great Again!” – could have been taken from Putin’s play­book on how to turn in­com­pe­tence and weak­ness of char­ac­ter into the ap­pear­ance of om­nipo­tence and bold lead­er­ship.

Putin plans to re­main in power for at least an­other decade. If the US elects Trump as Pres­i­dent, it will have a friend in Rus­sia, if al­most nowhere else.

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