Today's Editorial

15 October 2016

Putin’s odyssey


Source: By Arunabha Bagchi: The Statesman


Vladimir Putin is the most hated person for the establishment politicians in the West today. The real turning point was the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014. Trouble was already brewing for a while as NATO tried to push into the periphery of Russia using the ploy of “association agreement” of the former Soviet republics with the European Union (EU). Russians always argued that this undermined the tacit agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union as a precondition for the reunification of Germany. The West went ahead anyway following the Wolfowitz doctrine that is still used as the guideline of US foreign policy since the dissolution of the Soviet Union:

“Preclude the emergence of bipolarity, another global rivalry like the Cold War, or multi-polarity, a world of many great powers, as existed before the two world wars. To do so, the key was to prevent a hostile power from dominating a ‘critical region,’ defined as having the resources, industrial capabilities and population that, if controlled by a hostile power, would pose a global challenge.”

The effort of the West to ‘capture’ Georgia did not work, and even led to a small war in the Caucuses. When Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, reneged on an earlier commitment to sign the “association agreement” with the EU under intense pressure from Moscow, the pro-EU lawmakers from the western part of Ukraine deposed the president and he fled to Russia. During that turmoil in Kiev Vladimir Putin annexed, on 18 March 2014, Crimea, a tiny peninsula on the Black Sea that was technically part of Ukraine. The West immediately condemned Putin for violating the post-Cold War arrangement and imposed economic sanctions on Russia.

There were numerous conflicts over Crimea throughout history, first between Russia and the Ottoman Empire and later between Russia and the western powers. After the October Revolution, French and English efforts to take control of Crimea were thwarted by the Red Army. Although inhabitants of Crimea were predominantly Russian, Nikita Khrushchev, in a gesture of goodwill, gave Crimea away to the Ukrainian SSR from the Russian SSR in 1954. This uneventful incident of that time became a serious potential problem when another Russian leader, Boris Yeltsin, in an even more bizarre gesture of goodwill, decided to break up his own country and the independent Republics of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine were formed after the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991. Russians must have panicked at the prospect of depending on the whims of Ukraine for the use of their huge naval base at Sevastopol in Crimea, the only warm water port in their possession that was leased from Ukraine until 2045. The possibility of Ukraine tying up with the West in the future posed a permanent danger to Moscow on the continuing use of the naval base in Crimea.

The annexation of Crimea was immediately followed by civil war in Ukraine between the pro-western government in Kiev and the Russian-speaking rebels in eastern Ukraine. The worst incident was the downing of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH 17 over rebel territory by a Russian Buk missile on 17 July 2014, resulting in a huge embarrassment for Moscow. The passengers were largely Dutch tourists, and included some top Dutch scientists planning to attend a conference in Indonesia. This led to the imposition of more stringent sanctions by the West. With a stalemate on the battlefront, an uneasy, and often violated, truce was agreed to under the Minsk protocol signed on 5 September 2014. It was a proxy war between the West and Russia that is still continuing at low key despite the signing of truce between the warring factions of Ukraine.

The theatre of operation on Russian confrontation with the West shifted to Syria the following year. To contain Iraq and appease the traditional Sunni allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the West fomented trouble in Syria by transforming street protests there against their president in 2011 into a sectarian conflict. The purpose was to get rid of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who was supported by Iran and Hezbollah, both bulwarks of the Shias. Around the same time, the Sunni militants of Iraq formed the Islamic State of Iraq as soon as the Americans withdrew their troops in 2011. They were initially tolerated by the West as a counterweight to the Shia supremacists running amok during the rule of Nouri al-Maliki. The Islamic State of Iraq used this opportunity to take over a large part of the northern and eastern parts of the Syrian territory, with Raqqa as its ‘capital’, and was from then on better known as ISIS. Soon many other rival rebel groups sprang up, including the Syrian Kurds and the al-Qaida affiliated Al-Nusra front.  There are also tens of so-called moderate fronts supported by the West, all of which are absolutely useless on the battlefield.

Russia has consistently supported the Syrian President in all international forums and, because of the prevarication of the West, slipped into the chaos in Syria with direct military involvement from 30 September 2015. At that moment the Syrian government was fast losing ground and only tenuously holding on to a small territory around the capital Damascus. The scale of Russian involvement with ground forces advising the Syrian Army, massive aerial bombing from their naval base in the Syrian port city of Tartus and their audacity of firing cruise missiles from their warships in the Caspian Sea and the Mediterranean to hit targets in Syria stunned the western experts. It changed the tide of war in favour of the Syrian government. Russians are bombing all rebel targets, except the Syrian Kurds. This includes the Al-Qaida affiliate, the Al-Nusra front, which is infuriating the West, as it is the only rebel faction capable of countering ISIS in the ensuing power struggle if the government of Syria eventually falls. The current savage bombing of the Syrian city of Aleppo by the Russians and the expected military onslaught there by the Syrians made a mockery of the latest of many ceasefire plans agreed upon by the US and Russian foreign ministers. The latest ceasefire is now virtually dead, amidst accusations by the West of Russia committing war crimes in Syria. This is the lowest point of the relationship of Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.

Russia has dramatically come back from the cold. Putin has a clear strategic edge over the West at this moment. Russia has become a key player in the Middle East. This is borne out by the fact that her long-term adversaries Israel and Turkey are mending their fences with Russia. The relationship with Iran has improved so much that Russian planes used an Iranian Air Force base to bomb rebel strongholds in Syria. This is so different from Russia right after the disintegration of the Soviet Union when a drunken leader, Boris Yeltsin, and his coterie of oligarchs in cahoots with western ‘big business’ ruled over a demoralised and pauperised population. After Putin came to power in 2002, the economy made an impressive turnaround. With the collapse of global commodity prices, the Russian economy is now undergoing a severe crisis of prolonged recession, with no end in sight. This made the aggressive posture of Russia from Crimea to Syria all the more puzzling to western strategic thinkers. The establishment media in the West is furious with Vladimir Putin for upsetting western designs.

According to the Russian expert, Professor Stephen Cohen, Putin’s unexpected behaviour reflects the power struggle going on in the Kremlin among the adherents of the “Washington Consensus” and the “nationalists”, with the latter faction ‘accusing’ Putin of acquiescing to the western plan to encircle Moscow. Putin came to power as a moderator between these two factions, and is now being forced to side with the “nationalists” under military, economic and financial pressure from the West. Putin is hugely popular in his country. Russians seem prepared to accept economic hardship in return for retrieving some of their past glory. Even more surprisingly, he succeeded in splitting western public opinion by drawing admiration among the nationalist politicians in Europe and those supporting Donald Trump in America. Whether Putin can sustain his Odyssey given Russia’s current military and economic weakness is anybody’s guess at present.


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