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December 18, 2013 6:21 pm

Putin is a spoiler, not a strategist

Russia-Ukraine deal is latest sign of hardball tactics
Vladimir Putin has left the world in no doubt how much he thirsts to return Russia to the global clout it enjoyed under the Soviet Union. This ambition is almost certainly unachievable. But that does not mean the Russian president can be underestimated. For he can look back on 2013 as a year when he has enjoyed clear success in reasserting Russian influence on the world stage.
Mr Putin can point to three significant foreign policy achievements this year. First, there was his diplomatic coup in August following the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Syria. Mr Putin proposed to the US that those weapons should be removed. This not only averted a US missile strike. It shored up Russia’s ally, Bashar al-Assad, who remains firmly in power while his country is increasingly mired in bloodshed.





Then there was Mr Putin’s protection for Edward Snowden, the former US National Security Agency contractor. Mr Snowden’s leaks of data showing how the US spies on its allies has severely damaged Washington’s relations with Europe. By harbouring him in Moscow, Mr Putin has prolonged the agony of US intelligence, which badly wants Mr Snowden handed to US justice.
Finally, there has been this week’s deal between Russia and Ukraine. For years the EU has sought to bring Ukraine closer to the west by means of a partnership agreement. But in a bold move, Mr Putin has brought Kiev back into the Russian sphere of influence, providing it with $15bn in loans and a steep discount in natural gas prices.
As they reflect on Mr Putin’s hardball diplomacy, western leaders might ask themselves some searching questions. The US and Russia are not descending into a rerun of the cold war. There are areas, such as Iran’s nuclear programme, where they continue to act in harmony.
But Mr Putin has given the west a sharp reminder this year of how tough and unscrupulous he is prepared to be in the defence of what he perceives to be Russia’s interests. Moreover, his actions have underscored the price the Obama administration is paying for a foreign policy that looks uncertain and disengaged in its approach to the Middle East and Europe.
Yet while they might heed these lessons, western leaders ought to keep a sense of perspective. Some will be tempted to overestimate Mr Putin’s diplomatic successes and assume they reflect fundamental strengths. They do not. In reality, Mr Putin’s Russia is a house built on sand.
There are several reasons for stating this. First, there is the economy. Russia requires oil prices to remain high to maintain current levels of public spending. There is no guarantee this will be the case. With a projected economic growth rate of 2.5 per cent next year, Russia is still the odd man out among the Brics countries. This is not a rising power but one which, having picked itself up from the political and economic collapse of the Yeltsin era, struggles to maintain its rate of growth.
Second, Russia is not a global player with a strategic vision that in any way rivals the US. Its influence is limited to a few areas of the globe. Russia has sway in parts of eastern Europe and the Middle East, but little in Africa, Latin America or Asia. Mr Putin’s Russia cannot remotely be regarded as a strategic competitor to the US. It is no more than a diplomatic spoiler on issues of its choosing.
Finally, we must be clear about why Mr Putin was able to pull off his diplomatic coups this year. The Russian president did not outfox the west. Instead, it was the west which, by its own actions, allowed itself to be outfoxed. If Mr Obama had gone ahead with a missile strike on Syria, the Kremlin could not have stopped him. It was only Mr Obama’s decision to consult Congress on the matter that gave the Kremlin its opportunity.
Moreover, had the EU and International Monetary Fund, like Russia, decided to give Ukraine the $15bn it needs with no conditions attached, then it might well have tied Kiev to the west. But that would have been an unacceptable bargain. Lending $15bn to Ukraine, without setting any conditions for economic reform, would have undermined the fundamental principles for which the EU stands.
The US and its allies should be wary of Mr Putin. His strength lies in his very good understanding of the limits of Russian power and of the tools that are available to him in order to defend it. But we should be in no doubt of his fundamental weakness either. The president of Russia is a man who is looking backwards not forwards.
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