If Vladimir Putin ever writes his autobiography, he must call it The Art of the Bluff. No Russian leader since Catherine the Great’s prime minister, Grigory Potemkin, has done a more masterful job of blending guile, audacity and bluff to project an undeserved illusion of power and success.
Whether that strategy ultimately bears fruit will depend on the Kremlin’s ability to negotiate a wide-ranging agreement with the new U.S. administration of president-elect Donald Trump that addresses Russia’s principal strategic concerns. In short, engage in a geopolitical monopoly game in which the Kremlin can cash in chips it has acquired, principally in the Middle East, in return for valuable concessions elsewhere.
What Moscow wants from Washington is first an end to economic sanctions.
Second, it seeks an agreement on Ukraine that ensures that country joins neither the European Union or NATO. That would result in a reduction in the levels of financial and military aid to a point that Ukraine will have no choice but to seek an accommodation with Russia.
Russia is unlikely to get either outcome.
The end of economic sanctions would require acceptance of Russian intervention in Ukraine. There would be strong bipartisan opposition in the U.S. Senate against such a concession.
Any move to legitimize Russian actions in Ukraine would also be highly destabilizing to NATO, and especially to its newest members in Eastern Europe. Those members, many dealing with constant Russian provocations, would see an agreement as a threat, with their security a bargaining chip that might be traded away for Russian concessions elsewhere.
Finally, any kind of accommodation with Moscow over Ukraine will rekindle the issues of Russian manipulation of the recent U.S. presidential elections and the extent to which Trump is in any way beholden to Putin.
What the U.S. wants in the Middle East is the elimination of Islamic State (IS), and a strategy to contain and eliminate al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups. It wants to contain the expansion of Iranian influence and power and prevent the emergence of Sunni-Shia proxy conflicts, like those in Syria and Yemen. It wants stability in Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. And it wants to ensure that Iran doesn’t interfere with the free flow of oil out of the Persian Gulf to world markets.
There’s little Russia can do to advance any of these objectives.
What the U.S. needs is boots on the ground to root out IS militants and roll back the territory IS controls. Russia isn’t going to send ground troops, although it can help with intelligence and to push the Syrian government to commit more resources to battling IS.
Russia can’t rein in Iran or curb the expansion of its power and influence, much less cut short the emergence of Sunni-Shia proxy conflicts. The two countries share a common interest in shoring up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in undermining American influence on the Middle East and increasing the price of oil. But does Russia need Iran more than Iran needs Russia?
The Russian economy has profound problems that will sharply limit the ability of the government to project its power and influence abroad.
The economy is highly dependent on hydrocarbon exports. The sector provides about 52 percent of the federal budget and 70 percent of the value of Russian exports. The economy rises and falls on the price of petroleum.
From 2000 through 2007, when oil prices were high, the economy grew at an annual average of seven percent, the Russian stock market was among the best performers in the world and average incomes more than tripled. Between 2008 and 2016, average annual growth was virtually zero. Capital flight accelerated, foreign investment fell precipitously and inflation accelerated – topping out at over 13 percent. Since the imposition of sanctions following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the economy contracted by almost four percent in 2015 and another 0.5 percent in 2016.
Russia needs oil prices to average around $70 a barrel to balance its budget, and ideally $70 to $100 to modernize its military and rebuild its foreign exchange reserves. Oil prices won’t reach these levels anytime soon.
Russia’s geopolitical reality – an absence of a defensible frontier – has meant that security is contingent on controlling ever larger swatches of its periphery. This has created a recurring historic dynamic. During periods of strength, Russia’s power and territorial control expands, only to contract during periods of weakness. This has been particularly true in Eastern Europe, across which Russian power has waxed and waned for 500 years. Russia’s ascendency, then, is simply the predictable swing in the pendulum of its power.
This is where Putin’s bluff has been so brazen. Russia’s aggressive posture is not the result of growing strength but a gambit to hide increasing weakness. The Kremlin’s policy in the Ukraine, rather than being an example of the reassertion of Russian power, is a glaring example of overreach. Russia never had the ability to invade, much less subdue Ukraine. The Kremlin gambled that the West would stand aside. The gamble failed and the consequent economic sanctions aggravated an already steep economic contraction.
The result is a frozen conflict. Russia is unwilling to withdraw but lacks the means to force Ukraine to accede. It’s doing everything it can – from accumulating strategic chips in the Middle East to supporting, and even financing, some of the anti-EU rightwing parties in Europe calling for an end to Russian sanctions – to improve its bargaining position with the West.
Ultimately, Russia is banking that a new U.S. administration will give it a way out of the hole it has dug for itself. There’s little reason to do this. Putin’s hand is growing weaker, not stronger. Time favours the West.
Joseph Micallef is an historian, best-selling author and, at times, sardonic commentator on world politics.