Make Rus­sia Great Again

Restor­ing Moscow’s power on the in­ter­na­tional stage will be one of the key pil­lars of Putin’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign

The Moscow Times - - 4 LOOKING FORWARD - By Mikhail Fish­man and Matthew Kupfer news­re­porter@ime­ | Il­lus­tra­tion by Bo­je­moi

In 2016, Donald Trump rode a wave of pop­u­lar dis­con­tent to the White House on the prom­ise that he would “make Amer­ica great again.” As Rus­sia’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, sched­uled for March 2018 draws nearer, Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin may try a sim­i­lar tac­tic — by con­tend­ing that he has al­ready re­stored Rus­sia’s great­ness.

Since an­nex­ing Ukraine’s Crimean penin­sula in 2014, Rus­sia has in­creas­ingly as­serted its role on the global stage.

The Krem­lin has ig­nited a sep­a­ratist move­ment in east­ern Ukraine and sup­ported the un­rec­og­nized “peo­ple’s re­publics” that emerged there. In 2015, Rus­sia en­tered the long­stand­ing Syr­ian civil war in sup­port of em­bat­tled Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad. Trump’s electoral vic­tory and the demise of the Western con­sen­sus against Rus­sia’s vi­o­la­tion of in­ter­na­tional law has also been a ma­jor coup for the Krem­lin.

These events have all cat­a­pulted Putin to the po­si­tion of a pow­er­ful bro­ker in the in­ter­na­tional arena and ful­filled the coun­try’s long­stand­ing de­sire for in­ter­na­tional in­flu­ence. They sig­nify that, “Rus­sia is once again a global player on par with the United States—much like the USSR was thirty years ago,” says Alexei Levin­son, a so­ci­ol­o­gist at the Le­vada Cen­ter.

Rus­sia’s quest for global in­flu­ence won’t end in the near fu­ture. Ob­servers sug­gest that the up­com­ing pres­i­den­tial elec­tion will be ut­terly pre­dictable, lack­ing real com­pe­ti­tion. As a re­sult, Putin will likely spend 2017 demon­strat­ing Rus­sia’s global great­ness to spur en­thu­si­asm and drive Rus­sians to the polls.

This does not mean that Rus­sia will rush to war, says po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Vladimir Frolov. But it does mean the Krem­lin must project an im­age of strength abroad. “The idea is to show in­flu­ence,” he says. Putin will need to “make head­lines, as­sert Rus­sia’s global pres­ence and demon­strate that it is re­turn­ing its spheres of in­flu­ence.”

New Ad­ven­tures

Ear­lier this month, it emerged that Rus­sia had de­ployed a 22-mem­ber spe­cial forces unit to a base in western Egypt, near the Libyan border. Rus­sia’s goal is likely to sup­port Khal­ifa Haf­tar, a rene­gade Libyan Na­tional Army gen­eral who cur­rently con­trols most of the coun­try’s east and poses a se­ri­ous chal­lenge to the UN-backed gov­ern­ment in Tripoli.

the Krem­lin’s sup­port for Haf­tar is not new — the gen­eral made two high-pro­file vis­its to Moscow in 2016, and signed a series of undis­closed agree­ments with the Rus­sian mil­i­tary in Jan­uary. But it is sig­nif­i­cant be­cause it un­der­mines UN ef­forts to sta­bi­lize the north African coun­try.

The de­ploy­ment shows that Rus­sia is think­ing “not just about its con­tin­ued pres­ence in Syria, but in the Greater Mid­dle East,” says Alexei Malashenko, a re­gional an­a­lyst at the Di­a­logue of Civ­i­liza­tions foun­da­tion.

And it isn’t lim­ited to the Mid­dle East. Re­cently, Rus­sia has also in­creased its role in Afghanistan. In Fe­bru­ary, the Krem­lin or­ga­nized an Afghanistan peace con­fer­ence in Moscow that brought to­gether rep­re­sen­ta­tives from Afghanistan, Pak­istan, In­dia, China, and Iran. No­tably ab­sent were the United States and other NATO coali­tion mem­bers.

Rus­sia has also ad­vo­cated for in­clud­ing the Tal­iban in any so­lu­tion to the con­flict in Afghanistan, pre­sent­ing the Is­lamist mil­i­tants as a bul­wark against the Is­lamic State (IS). In Fe­bru­ary, Gen. John Ni­chol­son, com­man­der of U.S. mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions in the coun­try, al­leged that Rus­sia had in­creased covert and overt sup­port for the Tal­iban to un­der­mine the U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan.

Rus­sia has sin­cere con­cerns about con­flict spillover from Afghanistan into Cen­tral Asia, says Malashenko. But it is also us­ing the IS and Tal­iban pres­ence in Afghanistan to as­sert the role of the Col­lec­tive Se­cu­rity Treaty Or­ga­ni­za­tion (CSTO), a Rus­sia-led mil­i­tary al­liance of post-Soviet states in the re­gion.

Europe could also serve as an­other stag­ing ground for re­stored Rus­sian in­flu­ence. As po­lit­i­cal un­cer­tainty grows in the EU, Rus­sia is re­assert­ing its in­flu­ence in the Balkans.

Ear­lier this month, when EU for­eign af­fairs rep­re­sen­ta­tive Fed­er­ica Mogherini spoke in the Ser­bian par­lia­ment, a group of pro-Rus­sia par­lia­men­tar­i­ans met her with chants of “Ser­bia! Rus­sia! We don’t need the EU!”

On March 20, David McAl­lis­ter, chair of the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment Com­mit­tee on For­eign Af­fairs, ac­cused Rus­sia of de­lib­er­ately desta­bi­liz­ing Ser­bia in or­der to pre­vent the Balkan coun­try from join­ing the EU. He has also al­leged that Rus­sia sup­ports na­tion­al­ist lead­ers through­out the Balkans.

In Mon­tene­gro, two Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers stand ac­cused of mas­ter­mind­ing a failed coup on elec­tion day in Oc­to­ber 2016 to pre­vent the Balkan na­tion from join­ing NATO. Last month, a Mon­tene­grin spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor stated that “Rus­sian state bod­ies were in­volved on a cer­tain level.”

Any move that desta­bi­lizes the Balkans would send a strong mes­sage to the West: Rus­sia is a crit­i­cal re­gional power­bro­ker.

Dis­plays of su­per­power sta­tus “could be a trump card in the elec­tion,” says De­nis Volkov of the Le­vada Cen­ter, “but the demon­stra­tion of Rus­sia’s global role has to be plau­si­ble.”

Hes­i­ta­tion Blues

So far, there is no con­sen­sus in the Krem­lin on whether to boost ten­sion in Ser­bia. “Cooler heads un­der­stand it may be riskier than [in­volve­ment] in Syria,” says Frolov.

Mean­while, de­ci­sion­mak­ers must take into ac­count the public mood. Last year, polls re­peat­edly showed that Rus­sians are tired of war. Armed con­flicts are in­creas­ingly seen as an ir­ra­tional waste of re­sources, and hu­man losses—first in Ukraine, then in Syria — as some­thing Rus­sia doesn’t need.

The Rus­sian public sees the coun­try’s newly achieved su­per­power sta­tus as a source of in­ter­na­tional re­spect, but Rus­sians are more ea­ger for this sta­tus to be used for di­a­logue, than for con­fronta­tion, says Volkov. “The feel­ing is: ‘Now we can’t be ig­nored,’” he says. As a re­sult, the chal­lenge for the Rus­sian lead­er­ship will be to avoid back­slid­ing into real con­flicts that might un­der­mine sta­bil­ity, some­thing Rus­sians hold dear.

Putin seems to un­der­stand this, says Fy­o­dor Lukyanov, ed­i­tor-in-chief of the jour­nal Rus­sia in Global Af­fairs. He is too cau­tious to at­tempt a full-scale restora­tion of Soviet grandeur.

“Be­sides Syria [and Ukraine], it’s ei­ther iso­lated lo­cal episodes, or just talk,” Lukyanov says.

So far, there is no clear in­di­ca­tion that the Krem­lin has de­cided on a cen­tral idea for Putin’s electoral plat­form. One of the chal­lenges for the Krem­lin will be ad­dress­ing eco­nomic stag­na­tion and de­clin­ing liv­ing stan­dards that will likely per­sist in Rus­sia for a few more years. The other will be get­ting vot­ers to the polls. But nos­tal­gia for Soviet great­ness could still drive electoral mo­bi­liza­tion. Re­cent de­bates over hold­ing the elec­tion on the fourth an­niver­sary of the Crimean an­nex­a­tion re­flect an ap­peal to that nos­tal­gia.

Rus­sia’s global in­flu­ence will be a key part of the cam­paign, but the nos­tal­gia card has al­ready been played, says Lukyanov.

“Putin will have to ex­plain why Rus­sians need [global in­flu­ence] and what they get from it,” he says.

Po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant Evgeny Minchenko frames the is­sue more bluntly: Restor­ing Rus­sia’s su­per­power sta­tus was the pur­pose of Putin’s third term.

“Now the ques­tion is ‘what’s next?’” he says.

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