Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 June 2019

As the West prevaricates, Putin builds a new order

The options for the West to Russia's aggressive stance in international relations are to make a deal or confront Putin, writes Martin Newland.
How best to approach Russia's increased role in the Syrian conflict? Omar Sanadiki / Reuters
How best to approach Russia's increased role in the Syrian conflict? Omar Sanadiki / Reuters

What might plans for a Russian sovereign bond issue, being circulated now among international banks, have to do with events in Syria?

The Russian economy is reeling from the effects of sanctions imposed by the West following the outbreak of war in Ukraine in 2014. With the rouble in freefall, oil prices sinking and a population facing deteriorating living standards, Russia needs access to capital markets.

But, according to the Financial Times, banks interested in participating are being reminded by the United States Treasury that great care should be taken to avoid any investments that run counter to American foreign policy interests.

It is a mistake to associate US power exclusively with global military prowess. American financial regulators are able to wield fiscal sticks that can be just as effective in securing strategic compliance.

The US wants Mr Putin to fall in with its plans for Syria by ceasing to provide broad-spectrum military support aimed at keeping Syrian president Bashar Al Assad in power. It expects this while seeking to deny the Russian leader a measure of economic equilibrium at home.

It is thus worth reflecting on how events in Syria are shaped by the re-emerging Cold War dynamic between Russia and the West. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nato expanded eastwards, penetrating old Soviet spheres of influence. The expansion eastwards of European Union membership provided a social, political and economic underpinning to the expansion of Nato.

The growth of western military influence throughout the Middle East in the same period also threatened Russian ambitions in the region.

Russia has always been subject to a degree of geographic, and thus strategic, isolation. This has proved beneficial in the face of invasions by Napoleon’s, and then Hitler’s, armies, but disadvantageous when it came to projecting power.

Russia is short of warm water ports. Most of the all-important “breakout points” to the oceans of the world, through which credible global influence is demonstrated, are blocked by geography, international treaty or Nato affiliation. The annexation of Crimea, home of the Russian Black Sea fleet, together with Russia’s involvement in Syria, show just how determined Mr Putin is to retain his strategic line of sight to the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

Much is made of Mr Putin’s resolve, his ability to exploit divisions and establish facts on the ground favourable to Moscow in the face of international vacillation. But Russia, despite the weakening of the western strategic consensus, is not in the same league economically or militarily as its old adversaries (for as long as it threatens US interests, at least). Its economy is stagnant and undiversified. More and more citizens are sinking below the poverty line. Mr Putin’s famous resolve is fuelled in equal parts by principle and desperation.

But the US has shown itself to be indecisive and inconsistent since the failure of the post-invasion Iraq settlement and this looks set to continue. The success of Donald Trump, and indeed of all those who have done well in the US primaries, has been influenced by their isolationist rhetoric. By the end of the election process, whoever wins the presidency will have to account in US policy for America’s weariness with foreign adventures.

The European Union is stricken financially, demographically and politically.  The lack of strategic cohesiveness was perhaps best illustrated by the lukewarm response to the killing of nearly 300 people – 70 per cent of them EU citizens – when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was downed over Ukraine by a Russian-made Buk missile in 2014.

The transatlantic alliance through which the joint leaders of the Anglosphere, America and the UK, used to demonstrate global intent has fallen into disrepair. A recent Atlantic Council report said that deployment of a single UK brigade to face up to a sudden Russian challenge from the East would be a major logistical challenge. The looming referendum in the UK on separation from the EU represents a further fragmenting of the western European consensus in the face of increased aggression from the East.

At home, despite economic decline, Mr Putin’s approval ratings continue to soar.  Throughout history, under the tsars and Soviet strongmen, Russia has demonstrated a readiness to unite (and suffer) under autocracy to defend or project the “Rodina” – the Motherland.  Mr Putin’s approach in Syria will remain substantially the same unless one of two approaches are adopted: flight or fight.

The flight scenario is one in which concessions are made, sanctions are eased and Russian interests in its sphere of influence in Europe and the Middle East are recognised. This would give Mr Putin a measure of prestige at home and recognition of his claims in a world that in any case is becoming increasingly politically Balkanised.

The less realistic fight scenario demands that the West stands firm, that Russia be made to alter course or face military sanctions such as a US-administered air exclusion zone over Syria and a far more aggressive military posture by western forces in Europe.

Earlier this year, US Senator John McCain was succinct in his assessment of Mr Putin: “…We have seen this movie before in Ukraine:  Russia presses its advantage militarily, creates new facts on the ground … negotiates an agreement to lock in the spoils of war and then chooses when to resume fighting … this is diplomacy in the service of military aggression … the only deterrence that we seem to be establishing is over ourselves.”

Prevarication on the part of the West will permit Mr Putin to establish new political and strategic realities in Syria and elsewhere. It remains to do a deal or to threaten real consequences. Anything in between will not suffice.

Martin Newland is a former editor-in-chief of The National

Updated: February 29, 2016 04:00 AM

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