Putin Locked and Loaded
For instance, the recent buildup of troops along the borders of Ukraine seemed to come out of nowhere. Perhaps because US President Joe Biden called Putin a killer, some observers mused. A calming phone call from Biden was followed by a quick withdrawal of Russian troops.
Contribute to Putin’s erratic reputation are the games of aerial chicken played by Russian fighter jets that occasionally buzz NATO aircraft over European skies. So, too, do the variety of cyberattacks on Internet systems engineered by his government against the US, Baltic states and central Asia.
There’s little question that Putin’s apparent desire to remain in the center of world headlines and stoke nationalism at home explains some of this helter-skelter activity. But there’s a bigger pattern of foreign policy behavior that precedes Putin’s arrival on the international scene and would likely outlive him if he left office.
It is to reassert Russia as a global power, an ambition that back dates at least as far back as 1996 before he rose to prominence.
During the 1990s, many of Russia’s political elites and in particular, remnants of the country’s KGB intelligence establishment, became disillusioned by Russia’s subservient status to the United States. Under Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Soviet president, the country was impoverished, its military was in disarray and the nation was subject to cannibalistic oligarchy feeding off the carcass of Soviet-era industry. Russia was seen as a Cold War loser and the US triumphant.
Enter Yevgeny Primakov, foreign minister in 1996 and later prime minister. He laid out a blueprint for revival of Russia’s global standing. He resolutely spoke out against NATO expansion toward Russia’s borders and campaigned for creation of alliances to counter American dominance of world affairs. In that context, he put special emphasis on a partnership with China.
Primakov’s plans bore no fruit. He first tried to put his ideas in motion by constructing a quasi-alliance of like-minded Asian powers—India, Iran and China– to oppose the US bombing of Iraq when the US suspected Saddam Hussein was building atom bombs. No joint opposition appeared and the air strikes went ahead.
Primakov opposed US-led military interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. In 1999, while flying to Washington for a meeting with US Vice President Al Gore, Gore phoned him to say that the Americans were about to bomb Serbia. Angered and humiliated, Primakov ordered his plane back to Moscow.
Foreign Policy Foxes: Henry Kissinger and Yevgeny Primakov
In addition– and over Russian objections– NATO added former Warsaw Pact countries to the alliance in 1999. Expansion continued with the addition of three former Soviet republics along the Baltic Sea coast by 2004.
Despite this list of failures, Primakov’s vision lived on. The agent for keeping it alive would be Vladimir Putin, appointed prime minister in 1999 and then, on New Year’s Eve that year, as Yeltsin’s successor. (Primakov, who had ambitions to become replace Yeltsin as president, had already been removed from office.)
Focusing on a condition for strengthening Russia which Primakov had emphasized, Putin moved to re-centralize central government rule. He put down an armed rebellion in Chechnya and installed a client regime there. In order to tighten central control over the country’s provinces, he weakened the power of governors. He also regained command of key Russian energy companies, a key source of state income.
Victory in Chechnya, feared by Russians as a terrorist outpost, along rising oil prices that stabilized Russia’s economy, made him wildly popular.
As Russia revitalized, Putin turned toward heading off NATO expansion. With direct interventions in Georgia and Ukraine, he blocked any near possibility for to quickly join the alliance. In 2008, Russia sent troops into Georgia to back separatist fighters and then recognized the independence of the breakaway regions. They remain separate from Georgia to this day.
In Ukraine, after the 2014 overthrow of a pro-Russian government via massive anti-Moscow demonstrations, Russia invaded the eastern part of the country, nourished pro-Russian insurgents there and annexed Crimea.
Putin then moved to widen Russia’s footprint abroad by steadily expanding Russia’s reach in the Mediterranean Sea along NATO’s southern flank. He backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his decade long battle against a variety of rebels and refurbished Russia’s naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. He is supporting rebels in eastern Libya against the central government through an affiliated mercenary force.
Putin’s interventions in Eastern Europe and the Middle East have effectively brought to life Primakov’s hope of again making Russia a major power. It has also come at low military risk, as the use of proxies reduces the chance of direct confrontation with the West.
At the same time, Putin’s occasional sabre rattling reminds adversaries of Russia’s nuclear, missile and ground force capabilities. That combination was evident in the recent tensions with Ukraine where Russia’s backed up its determination to protect its allies in eastern Ukraine with a formidable armored tank force gathered on the border.
It all comes down to a steady reversal of fortunes. In the 1990s, the West, with the United States in the lead, bestrode both Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Russia was a weak bystander.
Now, Putin’s Russia is a strategic player, not only along its western border facing NATO, but in the alliance’s southern flank in Mediterranean. At a minimum in both realms, Russia cannot be ignored.
And as icing on the geopolitical cake, Putin has multiplied Russia’s importance by nurturing an ever-closer partnership with China. He has even spoken of forging a military alliance with Beijing. China has yet to buy on, but Russia’s deepening ties with Xi Jinping’s economic and military powerhouse worries US military planners that they might someday face hostilities on two fronts: against Russia in Europe and with China in the South China Sea or over Taiwan.
So, rather than unpredictable, Putin has steadily overseen a quarter century’s worth of foreign policy continuity. Primakov, who died in 2015, would be proud.
Advice to Biden from Carnegie Institute: https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/03/09/back-to-basics-on-russia-policy-pub-84016
A long take on Putin foreign policy from Jamestown Institute: https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/resrep19785.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A9a0a0d9012472d22fae7db399a1a17fb
Version in Asia Times: https://asiatimes.com/2021/04/unpredictable-putin-geopolitically-an-open-book/