x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Russia fills a power vacuum, and Syrians suffer the result

Vladimir Putin's plan for a new Eurasian Union may not go far, but it shows how things are changing with the end of the unipolar world.

On Tuesday Russia grabbed the world's headlines with a couple of actions that are likely to have diplomatic consequences for years to come.

In the evening, Russia cast a veto against a UN Security Council resolution that would have enabled sanctions against the Syrian regime. The western powers had diluted the wording of the resolution to meet Russian objections by excluding military action, but still this was not enough.

Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, stormed out of the chamber, declaring: "This is a cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people."

A few hours earlier, the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, who is destined to return to his old post of president at next year's election, offered the voters a reason for him to be returned to power for a further 12 years.

In an article in Izvestia, Mr Putin set out his big idea: reassembling the broken shards of the old Soviet Union into a "Eurasian Union". He went out of his way to say he was not restoring the old communist state, but there is no doubt that this idea strikes a chord with older Russians, who are nostalgic for the days when Moscow represented a superpower, not the glitz and graft of modern-day Russia.

The headlines, even in Russia, focused on Mr Putin's ambition to be not just president of Russia - a job he has done for eight years in the past - but to leave a statesman's legacy as the man who reconstituted the Russian empire.

The goal of the Eurasian Union, he said, was to be "a powerful supranational association" which could become "one of the poles in the modern world" and serve as an "efficient bridge between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific region". (Some people reading this in the UAE might think that the vacancy has already been filled, but that is another issue).

Putting these two actions together, it is easy to see Mr Putin as determined to create a resurgent Russia - an angry bear roused from its 20-year hibernation and not afraid to challenge the US and its allies. There are many in Russia who bitterly resent their fallen status, and the loss of power, allies and markets around the world.

Clearly, as the more emollient and reform-minded president Dmitry Medvedev prepares to give up the seat he has kept warm for Mr Putin since 2008, there will be a harder tone in Russian diplomacy.

Russian commentators are unimpressed by US anger at the veto of sanctions against Syria. They take the view that the "No" vote should not have come as a surprise. Russia feels it was tricked by America, Britain and France over the UN resolution imposing a no-fly zone over Libya in March. This vote was never intended to be used as carte blanche for Iraqi-style regime change, they argue. And they don't want to be fooled again.

Libya was an ally of little consequence in the world, but Syria is a different matter: it is at the centre of politics in the Middle East and provides the Russian navy with a repair base at Tartous. Even more vexing is the realisation that Russia will get no reward for joining the consensus on Libya: the new regime will be buying Nato kit, not MiGs or Sukhois, and Russian oil companies are unlikely to share the spoils either. Syria, by contrast, has a shopping list of military supplies it wants from Russia, from submarines to missiles, though how it would pay for them is a different matter.

When looking at Mr Putin's Eurasian Union, there is an inevitable parallel with Turkey. With the prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaking most loudly on the Syria crisis and touring the region, it seems that Turkish diplomacy is reliving the Ottoman Empire, just as Mr Putin is accused of dreaming of USSR 2.0. Someone somewhere must be writing an article with the headline, The Empires Strike Back.

But that would be too glib. Mr Erdogan is not planning to revive that oppressive state which kept the Arab lands in thrall for so many centuries.

Rather, what prompts this talk of old empires is something different: the vacuum left by the US and the European Union, both hamstrung by financial crisis and lack of leadership. This week Simon Tisdall in The Guardian newspaper dismissed Mr Obama's foreign policy as "waffle, dither and drift". The Beirut press, referring to the threatened US veto of the Palestinian state and the EU's inability to reach any decision how to vote, has written of the "ethical decline of the West".

In the absence of Big Brother in Washington calling the shots in Asia and the Middle East, and his little sister in Brussels making peace on the fringes of Europe, it is not surprising that other politicians rise to take the lead. Since the end of the Cold War, the key relationship of all countries has been with Washington. That is over, and international politics is more like a free for all.

In the European sphere, countries of the former Soviet Union have looked to Brussels to lead them. But the EU has no stomach for enlargement. Turkey has been kept in the waiting room too long, while Ukraine, the former Soviet state that ought to be the next big country in the queue, has no prospect of joining at the moment.

Mr Putin's Eurasian Union needs Ukraine if it is to be credible. At the moment that country has its eyes firmly focused on the West. But if - and it is a very big if - Russia can offer better economic incentives than Brussels, without stomping on Ukraine's hard-won independence, then all bets are off.

Since the end of the Cold War Moscow has railed against the "unipolar world" where Washington pitched a big tent and invited everyone to shelter in it. That unipolar moment has gone, and Mr Putin is now pitching his own tent. Whether he can attract enough people to it is an open question. It will require a mixture of financial strength and diplomatic subtlety that so far has eluded him.