Everything seemed to be going Vladimir Putin’s way. The attacks on Paris tilted European politics in his favour and as he was basking in this newfound indispensability in Turkey, he also started mending fences with Turkey. The Turkish Stream was back on track and Recep Tayyip Erdogan was preparing to visit Moscow. Yet, it took only 17 seconds to take this downhill again. The downing of the Russian Su-24 over Turkey showed the limits of Putin’s brave new foreign policy.
The business daily Vedomosti ran an article last week on the characteristics and the public reception of the new Russian foreign policy. Vladimir Frolov, the author called the new foreign policy belligerent, unpredictable, but at the same time, a source of pride and a source of entertainment for Russian citizens. 30 percent of Russians, Levada Center found in October, are proud of the “independent foreign policy” of their country. Only, it is all but independent.
As Vladimir Putin is going from one conflict to another beyond the borders of Russia, he is also going from one conflict to another domestically. The Russian foreign policy is not independent in the sense that it has replaced domestic policy and it has to deliver in the domestic front. In case of external stimuli, the response must every time be stronger, louder, harsher, on all levels, from the military to local authorities. No consistent foreign policy strategy can be maintained in such a vicious circle, let alone if it needs to make up for the lack of domestic policies. Tourism, one of the most tangible benefits of the Putin era for Russian citizens, is now severely limited. Planes don’t fly to Egypt. Charter planes are banned from going to Turkey. Ukraine has banned Russian transfer flights from its airspace. Restricting the trade of clothing and food with Turkey will lead to another hike in consumer prices. Russians are fabled for their resilience in times of external crises. But they have never before had access to this level of wealth and they have never before been a more open society in the course of their history. Wealth and openness are addictive. So far, the Russian state has managed to avoid being blamed for its citizens’ recent misfortunes – but only because, as the Russian Academy of Sciences found – people expect generally less from the state. And they are less and less willing to give up things for the state, too.
And it is far from over. Turkish Stream now seems to be a dead project. The European Union decided to extend its sanctions against Russia for six more months. Central Asia, a place where Russian and Chinese interests have seemed to be reconcilable so far, has just become a slightly more complex place. A Kazakh political analyst warned last week that “Russia’s actions are creating distinct problems for its partners” in a space where Turkey has a not very strong, but existing power network among Turkic states. Azerbaijan, where the Russian government has managed to build very strong bastions in the past years, to the detriment of Azerbaijan’s European and American relations, and where Turkey has strong stakes too, is a good example of why Russia does not want to make the security architecture of the South Caucasus and Central Asia more complicated.
Is there a bigger picture?
There has been painstakingly lot of talk about a new world order recently, relative to Russia’s actions. Some say that Putin’s ultimate goal is to retake the seat at the table that Russia lost with the fall of the Soviet Union, or at least, to challenge the world order, in whatever way, to shape a new one, in which Russia has internationally recognised hegemony over its immediate neighbourhood and its allies, the “Russky Mir” (this concept can be, according to Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, freely extended to any country sharing Russia’s values). Those claiming this must either suppose that Vladimir Putin possesses outstanding strategic skills or that he is an idealist, removed from the real world. After all, as Mark Galeotti pointed out in last week’s The Power Vertical podcast, the world order is a somewhat fluid concept, not an arrangement carved in stone after a summit of world leaders around a map. To play a game like this, one needs a strategy. To have a strategy, one needs to have plan Bs. And this is what Putin does not seem to have: neither at home, nor in Ukraine or Syria. Posturing, engaging in a new conflict or taking one step forward and two steps back is not a plan B. It is improvisation.
There is another debate, about the nature of global relationships, with some questioning if Russia’s integration into global trade has really decreased its propensity for making trouble. But changing political reflexes takes more time. There needs to be a large enough economic and political toll on Russia and its leaders for misbehaviour for it to work. So far this has not happened. But in 2016, we may just get there.
Vladimir Putin wants a deal on the Donbas. This may just have been the only, or the most important reason why he sent Russian warplanes to Syria. Parliamentary elections are coming up in 2016, and they may coincide with the Reserve Fund of the Russian budget running dry. The oil market may recover, but expecting that is a gamble. The only budgetary heading that has remained intact is the defence budget – and you can’t touch that. Putin needs European sanctions to be removed to give the Russian economy some breathing space. But he also needs the story of the Donbas to be sold as a victory, and he needs the territory to be used as a leverage on Ukraine – either as an irreparable drain on the Ukrainian budget, or as a constant threat. Quite a specific set of conditions.
And this deal seems increasingly elusive. Some in Europe – notably France – would probably agree to the above terms. But others have realised that at this point, the EU needs a deal with Turkey much more than it needs a deal with Russia. A coalition in Syria can be built around already existing common interests in Syria – despite the differences. A deal with Turkey needs a lot of horse-trading. By promoting a logic of “either-or”, Putin is overplaying an increasingly weak hand – but does he have a choice?
Presently, the cluelessness of the European Union in its Eastern Neighbourhood coupled with the outlandishly rampant corruption in these countries may still win this for Russia. And you should never underestimate the fallibility of Brussels. But in a longer term, time is not on Putin’s side.