It’s a lone­lier world for Vladimir Putin

The Baltic Times - - COMMENTARY - Leonid Bershidsky

Rus­sian rulers have long been con­tent to ac­cept fear and awe in lieu of re­spect and ad­mi­ra­tion, and by that stan­dard, Putin shone in 2016. This year that is prov­ing a tougher gig to keep up, as he pre­pares for what might be his last pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in 2018.

Last year, Putin’s bold­ness, com­bined with a bit of luck, paid off: The vic­to­ries in Syria, the suc­cess­ful desta­bi­liza­tion of Ukraine, the swelling sup­port for pop­ulists in Western na­tions. Even the Rus­sian econ­omy pro­vided some hope­ful signs with some­thing of an agri­cul­tural boom and the de-facto end of neg­a­tive growth (eco­nomic out­put shrank just 0.2 per­cent last year). But the path to great­ness Putin has cho­sen is a tough one: It’s eas­ier to make head­lines than to turn them into tan­gi­ble, long- or even medium-term ad­van­tages.

Rus­sia’s ef­forts to cul­ti­vate an op­po­si­tion to the con­ti­nent’s cen­trist elites look likely to back­fire. The wise men at the Krem­lin and the Rus­sian For­eign Min­istry never en­ter­tained much hope that Geert Wilders would be­come Dutch prime min­is­ter and veto a sanc­tions ex­ten­sion, or that Na­tional Front leader Marine Le Pen would win and dis­man­tle the Euro­pean Union al­to­gether. French repub­li­can can­di­date Fran­cois Fil­lon rep­re­sented a far more solid hope -- an al­ter­na­tive to Ger­many’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to treat Rus­sia as an ad­ver­sary. Fil­lon, how­ever, has been tripped up by a satir­i­cal newspaper that dis­cov­ered he had been pay­ing his wife a par­lia­men­tary aide’s salary; Putin has al­ways un­der­es­ti­mated the power of a free press, per­haps be­cause he has lim­ited ex­pe­ri­ence with one.

In the up­com­ing German elec­tion, no se­ri­ous party or can­di­date can be counted on to ad­vance Putin’s goals: So­cial Demo­crat Martin Schulz is no more pro-krem­lin than Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel. So here in Ger­many, Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence has been in­vis­i­ble so far, and it will likely stay that way through elec­tion sea­son.

Don­ald Trump’s vic­tory in the U.S. ini­tially looked like a ma­jor suc­cess for Putin, es­pe­cially if one be­lieves the sto­ries of Trump’s and his as­so­ciates’ close ties to Rus­sia. But even if Trump had planned to make any peace of­fer­ings to Putin, he has been hemmed in by a ma­jor anti-rus­sian cam­paign run by the me­dia and his po­lit­i­cal ri­vals. And for any­one who still thinks Trump is a Rus­sian pup­pet, on Thurs­day, the U.S. State De­part­ment, run by sup­pos­edly pro-rus­sian for­mer oil ex­ec­u­tive Rex Tiller­son, put out a state­ment strongly con­demn­ing Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea timed to co­in­cide with the an­nex­a­tion’s third an­niver­sary.

Trump is nev­er­the­less bet­ter for Putin than Clin­ton would have been. He’s dis­en­gaged from Europe, and Merkel’s visit to Wash­ing­ton on Fri­day is un­likely to fix what started off as a dys­func­tional re­la­tion­ship. His fo­cus is clearly do­mes­tic, and he’s dis­in­clined and prob­a­bly ille­quipped to med­dle in ar­eas where Rus­sian in­ter­ests are strong, such as Ukraine, the Balkans and Libya. In Syria, his in­ter­est is lim­ited to de­feat­ing the Is­lamic State -some­thing that is also in the Rus­sian in­ter­est.

Un­der Trump, the U.S. has stepped up in­volve­ment in Syria. Re­cent U.S. strikes helped As­sad and Rus­sia re­take Palmyra from ISIS fight­ers. All of this moves Rus­sia closer to­ward its goal of se­cur­ing As­sad’s po­si­tion in any fu­ture set­tle­ment, but it’s not ideal. Putin would have pre­ferred to re­solve the Syr­ian cri­sis in part­ner­ship with Turkey, lead­ing to a de-facto di­vi­sion of spheres of in­flu­ence be­tween the two coun­tries. Turk­ish President Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan, how­ever, proved a less than re­li­able part­ner be­cause of his over­ween­ing in­ter­est in de­stroy­ing Kur­dish sep­a­ratists, and Rus­sia has been forced to ac­cept a kind of un­spo­ken sit­u­a­tional al­liance with the U.S. to keep him in check. This com­pli­cates the fi­nal deal for Putin; in any case, the deal is nowhere in sight at this point de­spite Rus­sian and Turk­ish diplo­matic ef­forts.

In the Balkans and in Libya, Rus­sia has made its in­ter­ests known, but it has been care­ful not to make any Crimea-style sur­prise moves; vic­tory wouldn’t be cer­tain and a de­feat could be cat­a­strophic for Putin’s care­fully con­structed rep­u­ta­tion as an in­ter­na­tional force. Last year’s al­leged failed coup in Mon­tene­gro -- prob­a­bly a free­lance ef­fort by Rus­sian na­tion­al­ists Putin tol­er­ates rather than fully backs -- is a good rea­son for cau­tion. Moscow also hes­i­tates to go all in for Libya’s Gen­eral Khal­ifa Haf­tar: He may turn out to be too weak, re­quir­ing a costlier ef­fort than Putin can af­ford, both po­lit­i­cally and mil­i­tar­ily.

Ukraine, where Rus­sia’s im­me­di­ate in­ter­ests are stronger than in the Mid­dle East, con­tin­ues its self-de­struc­tive tra­jec­tory. President Petro Poroshenko re­cently de­cided to back a block­ade of east­ern Ukraine’s sep­a­ratist re­gions, which his gov­ern­ment pre­vi­ously said could re­sult in heavy eco­nomic losses for the na­tion. The rea­son Poroshenko flip-flopped is that the block­ade was backed by fiercely anti-rus­sian war vet­er­ans -- a force Poroshenko him­self has un­leashed and one he now fears.

It’s pos­si­ble that, by tight­en­ing his stran­gle­hold on Ukraine, Putin isn’t just turn­ing it into a lost cause for the West -- he’s also en­cour­ag­ing vi­o­lent forms of na­tion­al­ism, whose rise is more dan­ger­ous to Rus­sia than Poroshenko’s in­com­pe­tence and cor­rup­tion. This year, Ukraine is likely to drift fur­ther away from Rus­sia, not get closer to it.

Eco­nom­i­cally, too, there is not much re­lief on the hori­zon for Rus­sia. A joint at­tempt with Saudi Ara­bia and other oil ex­porters to talk up oil prices by promis­ing big pro­duc­tion cuts is fiz­zling. If cur­rent prices -- be­low $50 per bar­rel -- hold, the Rus­sian bud­get won’t col­lapse, but there will be no growth bonus, ei­ther. Gross do­mes­tic prod­uct is ex­pected to in­crease by about 1 per­cent -- a slower growth than in other emerg­ing mar­kets or even the EU, and not enough to back any kind of geopo­lit­i­cal ex­pan­sion be­yond the ex­ist­ing rel­a­tively cheap projects.

Putin can try to move fast and un­pre­dictably in a new shock-and-awe cam­paign. But he can’t count on strong al­lies or on a buoy­ant econ­omy, and his in­stinct ap­pears to be to ex­er­cise cau­tion for now. That’s a sure way to dis­ap­pear from the head­lines he has counted on to bol­ster his im­age.

This col­umn ini­tially ap­peared on com

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View colum­nist and the found­ing ed­i­tor of the Rus­sian busi­ness daily Ve­do­mosti.

Leonid Ber­shid­sky is a Bloomberg View colum­nist and the found­ing ed­i­tor of the Rus­sian busi­ness daily Ve­do­mosti.

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