Before Vladimir V. Putin’s election as president of Russia — once again — he sarcastically told a friendly group that his political opposition certainly would charge the large victory he expected was a result of fraud at the ballot box. How right he was. A state-controlled polling service reported within two weeks of his election win that less than one half of Russians polled trust the final vote count. Most neutral observers commented similarly. It was a sharp reminder to Russia’s dominant political athlete that the future will hold some tough sledding.
Putin waged a serious campaign to get back into his former Kremlin office. He attacked everyone and everything in hopes that he might energize his base and swing neutral voters his way. It was an uncharacteristically defensive style that he has continued with even after his victory. His press representative dragged out the six year old murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya to show that his nemesis, the exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, was the one behind her death and not government security assassins as the opposition had charged. This exposure appeared to have been timed to support Putin’s charge that Washington had “engineered” (his word) political opposition to him and encouraged pre-election street demonstrations.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, this week belatedly and hypocritically admonished Bashar al Assad: “We consider that the Syrian leadership reacted incorrectly to the rise of non-violent protest.” This followed his boss’s obscure public warning against “the United States and other countries setting a military scene in Syria without United Nations Security Council sanctions.” There are good military, and even political, reasons for the U.S. and NATO not to intervene in Syria, but Putin knows quite well that the UN Charter clearly provides for regional intervention under Chapter VII. Finally, after thousands of deaths, he’s had his foreign minister open the door to UN negotiation.
The Putin calculation has been that it is politically and strategically more advantageous for Russia to be on the side of the Syrian and Iranian regimes. This position may at first glance appear to be a matter of economics and political support for the Shia of the Middle East, but the issue is far more complicated.
Vladimir Putin on a personal basis finds it extremely difficult to consider world issues outside the context of a continued Cold War. It is not merely an intellectual convenience for him; it is the reality of the world in which he lives. Absent the United States as an aggressive “bogeyman,” leadership of Russia devolves into matters of economics, finance, and internal politics that are the boring traditional problems of a vast under-populated Euro/Asian country striving to keep up with its more sophisticated Western European cousins. These matters don’t interest the action-oriented Vlad to any great degree.
As Vladimir Putin likes to remind everyone, he is essentially a warrior. His original intelligence career formed his thought process and continues until today, though its importance appears to have been undervalued or even overlooked by the Obama White House. There is a tendency by many analysts to simplistically view Vladimir Putin as a former intelligence career officer who has made a transition into “civilian” political affairs, and now can be considered, for better or worse, a typical Russian counterpart to his Western compatriots. Convenient logic, but quite inaccurate.
The Chinese do not make this same mistake, and Putin is the first to recognize it. Since Vladimir Putin’s arrival on the international scene as a replacement for Boris Yeltsin, Beijing has understood that in all respects Russia would now be led by a veteran professional intelligence officer who had a solid political base in the civilian world as well as his own service. They did not make the mistake of imputing democratic characteristics to this professional staff officer and his operational clique (the siloviki). Furthermore, China’s days of being the poor relative of Moscow’s nationalist leadership was over. China made sure Putin understood this from the very beginning.
And this is Putin’s dilemma. China’s largest trading partner and banking client is the United States. For Beijing, Moscow is clearly secondary to Washington in terms of international politics and economics. At the same time Russia — under President Putin — remains fixated on the bipolar world that once existed and from which Moscow derived its own sense of self-importance. Putin is working hard to reestablish what once was a quite profitable (in diplomatic and strategic terms) competitive status vis-à-vis the United States. His initial steps in this regard have been to remain active in support of Russia’s clients in the Middle East, Iran and Syria.
The Obama Administration, not quite sure of how to deal with the return of Putin, has offered to exchange secret data on U.S. plans for interception systems to protect Europe from Iran’s future missile development. The Russians, in turn, have renewed their accord accepting NATO use of a Russian airfield in support of Afghan operations. It looks like the new configuration of Russian leadership (Putin/Medvedev versus Medvedev/Putin) has taken its first step back into global machination. It’s a step that China’s new leadership will monitor carefully.
The Syrian situation is perfectly constructed for what has been characterized in the past as typical hard-nosed Russian strategic negotiation. Hillary Clinton is no match for the self-assured, multi-lingual Sergei Lavrov, and Vladimir Putin considers himself far beyond Barack Obama in strategic judo. The question remains, however, exactly what has Putin in mind in terms of manipulating the new tri-polar political/military world he envisages — while keeping his home front in balance?