Russia: the return of Putin

Vladimir Putin voting in the Russian presidential elections. Photo: Government of the Russian Federation
By Dr Nicholas Redman, Senior Fellow for Geopolitical Risk and Economic Security

In his victory speech, delivered before the official result of Russia’s presidential election was announced, Vladimir Putin denounced efforts to ‘destroy Russian statehood and usurp power’. This was not the only time that he equated opposition to him with treachery to the Russian state.

With the elections over, bar the inevitable protests in a few cities, perhaps the narrative of Western powers scheming to undermine Russia will be toned down. But don’t bet on it. The Putin government’s understanding of what is happening in the Middle East right now, and its calculation of national interest there, are utterly at odds with those of Western and Arab states.

The decision in March 2011 to abstain on UN Security Council Resolution 1973 – which paved the way for military strikes against the Libyan regime – was perhaps the last independent foreign-policy decision of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency. In public, Putin did not hide his dissatisfaction, likening Western military action to a crusade. His decision in September 2011 to return as president all but confirmed that Russia would not be equally obliging if Western and Arab states sought a Security Council resolution on Syria. Last month, Russia vetoed a watered-down resolution on the grounds that it was loaded against the Syrian government and in favour of the opposition. A particular sticking point was the call for Bashar al-Assad to agree to step down.

Russia’s interests in Syria have been widely noted, including arms sales and the naval base at Tartus. The latter has little practical value for post-Soviet Russia’s shrunken navy, though it has symbolic significance and represents a hope that Russia may recover its status as a naval power to be reckoned with in the Mediterranean.

The prime motivation for Russia in blocking action over Syria is to ensure that Western states and regional and international organisations do not carve out a role as the arbiters or agents of political change within sovereign states. Already this has happened in Libya. Now the Kremlin worries that it is being tried on Syria. Might the next target be a Russian ally, or even Russia itself? It is hard to imagine Moscow agreeing to any UN resolution that would enable foreign powers to tilt the military balance in Syria, or to place conditions on a settlement between the government and its opponents.

During his campaign Putin accused Western states of embracing a ‘cult of violence’ and of being too ready to resort to sanctions or military action to secure their interests. In the case of Iran’s nuclear programme, Russia has blocked further UN sanctions and has sharply criticised US and EU sanctions. Sanctions have failed, Moscow argues, and what is needed now are incentives to encourage Iran to reach a deal before it reaches the threshold of a weapons capability.

The US-Russian ‘reset’ might be sorely tested too. Russia’s leaders remain suspicious that the European ballistic-missile defence system proposed by the Obama administration will eventually have the capability to blunt its own nuclear deterrent, and that this is indeed the primary purpose. Putin complains that the US is ‘obsessed’ with a quest for absolute invulnerability that leaves everyone else ‘absolutely vulnerable’. Recently he chided a Russian radio station for downplaying the threat that US missile-defence plans pose to Russia – and he suggested the station was serving foreign powers.

We’ll get an early insight into how a third-term Putin will play internationally in late May, just a few weeks after his inauguration, at the G8 summit in Chicago. His friends of yesteryear – Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schroeder and Silvio Berlusconi -are gone. In their place are leaders who tried, within the bounds of diplomatic decency, to bolster Dmitry Medvedev. They hoped he would win a second term as president and then start implementing the modernisation he has spent the last three years talking about. All things considered, Putin might have second thoughts about attending. But the discomfort is likely to be felt more keenly by his counterparts.


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