Putin’s ‘realpolitik’ aims to make Russia indispensable

Putin’s ‘realpolitik’ aims to make Russia indispensable

Paul Taylor
By intervening in Syria, President Vladimir Putin has broken Russia’s relative isolation and is making it the “indispensable nation” in conflicts in Syria, Ukraine and with Islamic State while the United States balks at deeper involvement. 

But in this geopolitical poker game, it’s not clear he will be able to quit while he’s winning, especially when events can take unexpected turns such as the shooting down of a Russian jet by Turkey’s air force on Nov. 24. 

Russia’s air strikes, cruise missiles and trainers on the ground have tilted the balance of forces in Syria back towards President Bashar al-Assad’s army, forcing a U.S.-backed coalition waging an air war against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) onto the back foot. 

Now Putin has seized on this month’s Islamist attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people, and the downing of a Russian airliner in Egypt, which was claimed by ISIL and killed all 224 people on board, to shift his focus and offer France an alliance against the militant group, also known as ISIS. 

The Russian Defense Ministry released pictures of bombs destined for Syrian targets inscribed “For Paris.”
“Russia has been willing and able to bring significant firepower to bear against ISIL at a time when France is willing but not entirely able, and the United States is able, but not entirely willing to bring its full firepower to bear against ISIL in Syria,” said Bruno Tertrais, senior research fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. 

From a pariah in the West over his action in Ukraine, Putin has become a sought-after interlocutor due to his “realpolitik” combining hard power and diplomacy. 

Western leaders who had lectured him over Ukraine at last year’s G-20 summit Brisbane, Australia, and sidelined him from the G-8 group of industrialized powers, vied for private meetings with him at this year’s G-20 in the Turkish resort of Antalya. 

After the failure of U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2009 “reset” of relations with Russia, it could be seen as a “re-reset” by the West, albeit somewhat reluctantly. 

It doesn’t mean Putin can escape yet from Western sanctions over his seizure of Crimea in 2014 and support of Russian-speaking separatists in eastern Ukraine. The five main Western powers agreed last week to extend them for at least six months. 

Nor does it guarantee the Russian leader a successful outcome to his Syrian venture. Military interventions often start in triumph and end in ashes, as the United States and Britain learned to their cost in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Soviet Union experienced in Afghanistan in the 1980s. 

Putin believes he has put Russia in the position that former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright claimed for the United States in the late 1990s as “the indispensable nation.” 

But some strategic analysts believe Putin is overreaching and storing up security and economic dangers for Russia from domestic militants and Middle East oil powers. 

It is not only events such as the shooting down of the Russian jet on Nov. 24, described by Putin as a “stab in the back”, that could affect relations with other powers. A “friendly fire” incident involving Western forces or strikes that caused huge civilian casualties could also blow his campaign off course. 

“Putin is a geopolitical master-tactician. Whether one likes it or not - and I don’t - ‘Putinpolitik’ is doing pretty well,” said Michael Emerson, a former European Union envoy to Moscow. 

He noted it was the second time Putin had wrong-footed the United States by taking an initiative in Syria that saved Assad from potential military defeat and make himself an unavoidable partner in any solution in the country. 

The first was in August 2013 when Putin persuaded Obama to use diplomacy to achieve the chemical disarmament of Syria rather than enforce the U.S. leader’s own “red line” by striking Assad’s forces over the use of the banned weapons. 

That decision was a “major foreign policy mistake” that signalled U.S. fatigue in the Middle East and was duly noted in Moscow and Beijing, said former NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. 

Obama belittled Russia after its seizure of Crimea as a “regional power” acting out of weakness rather than strength and not a “number one security threat” to the United States. 

Putin’s instinct for exploiting perceived U.S. and European weakness has been one of the features of his vigorous foreign policy as he has tried to reassert Russia’s great power status. 

*Paul Taylor is a Reuters analyst.