“It is hard to un­der­stand why the lead­ers of both the US and the EU take Putin at his word rather than judg­ing him by his be­hav­iour”

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Rus­sian planes have been bomb­ing the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion in south­ern Syria forc­ing them to flee to Jor­dan and Le­banon. There are now 20,000 Syr­ian refugees camped out in the desert await­ing ad­mis­sion to Jor­dan. A smaller num­ber are wait­ing to en­ter Le­banon. Both groups are grow­ing.

Rus­sia has also launched a large-scale air at­tack against civil­ians in north­ern Syria. This was fol­lowed by a ground as­sault by Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad’s army against Aleppo, a city that used to have 2 mil­lion in­hab­i­tants. The bar­rel bombs caused 70,000 civil­ians to flee to Turkey; the ground of­fen­sive could up­root many more.

The fam­i­lies on the move may not stop in Turkey. Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel flew to Ankara on Fe­bru­ary 9 to make last-minute ar­range­ments with the Turk­ish govern­ment to in­duce the refugees al­ready in Turkey to pro­long their stay there. She of­fered to air­lift 200,000300,000 Syr­ian refugees an­nu­ally di­rectly to Europe on the con­di­tion that Turkey pre­vent them from go­ing to Greece and will ac­cept them back if they do so.

Putin is a gifted tac­ti­cian, but not a strate­gic thinker. There is no rea­son to be­lieve that he in­ter­vened in Syria in or­der to ag­gra­vate the Euro­pean refugee cri­sis. In­deed, his in­ter­ven­tion was a strate­gic blun­der, be­cause it em­broiled him in a con­flict with Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan that has hurt the in­ter­ests of both.

But once Putin saw the op­por­tu­nity to has­ten the EU’s dis­in­te­gra­tion, he seized it. He has ob­fus­cated his ac­tions by talk­ing of co­op­er­at­ing against a com­mon en­emy, ISIS. He has fol­lowed a sim­i­lar ap­proach in Ukraine, sign­ing the Minsk Agree­ment but fail­ing to carry out its pro­vi­sions.

It is hard to un­der­stand why the lead­ers of both the US and the EU take Putin at his word rather than judg­ing him by his be­hav­iour. The only ex­pla­na­tion I can find is that demo­cratic politi­cians seek to re­as­sure their publics by paint­ing a more favourable pic­ture than re­al­ity jus­ti­fies. The fact is that Putin’s Rus­sia and the EU are en­gaged in a race against time: The ques­tion is which one will col­lapse first.

The Putin regime faces bank­ruptcy in 2017, when a large part of its for­eign debt ma­tures, and political tur­moil may erupt sooner than that. Putin’s pop­u­lar­ity, which re­mains high, rests on a so­cial compact re­quir­ing the govern­ment to de­liver fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity and a slowly but steadily ris­ing stan­dard of liv­ing. Western sanc­tions, cou­pled with the sharp de­cline in the price of oil, will force the regime to fail on both counts.

Rus­sia’s bud­get deficit is run­ning at 7% of GDP, and the govern­ment will have to cut it to 3% in or­der to pre­vent in­fla­tion from spi­ral­ing out of con­trol. Rus­sia’s so­cial

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