Vladimir Putin’s global stature appears to be at an all-time high. Some observers call the Russian president the Middle East’s new sheriff, and for good reason. Last week, during a series of meetings with the leaders of Syria, Turkey and Iran in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, Putin took the central role in a major diplomatic push to end Syria’s civil war by winning support from Turkey and Iran to host a Syrian peace congress.
The Sochi summit conspicuously did not include delegates from the United States or the European Union. And while its focus was on the Middle East, it’s clear that Putin has expanded his influence beyond the region. In Europe, he destabilised Ukraine by annexing its Crimean peninsula and supporting separatists in the Donbass region after Ukrainians overthrew their pro-Moscow president in 2014. In Asia, he has developed an increasingly close relationship with China. In the United States, charges of Russian interference in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump have dominated Washington’s political landscape and overshadowed the administration’s legislative agenda.
This is an impressive turn of events for the leader of the economically-anaemic remnant of a former superpower. Given that Russia’s economy has a GDP of $1.283 trillion – or barely 7 percent the size of America’s – Putin arguably has played a weak hand brilliantly.
But Putin’s apparent successes may turn out to be failures. The view of the Russian leader as a master tactician overlooks how his achievements risk blowing up in his face.
Consider Ukraine: Russia has historically sought to dominate its southern neighbour and Putin remains loath to allow the country to leave Moscow’s orbit and join the West. After Russia annexed Crimea, the Kremlin hoped to use a combination of Kremlin agents, local collaborators and irregular Russian soldiers to conquer the entire southern and eastern half of Ukraine. Since Ukraine’s military had only 6,000 combat-ready troops Putin’s dream of creating this “Novorossiya” — or New Russia — seemed within reach.
Unfortunately for Putin, things did not work out as he had planned. While Ukraine is culturally and linguistically split between a Ukrainian-speaking, Europe-oriented western half and a pro-Russian, Russian-speaking eastern area, Putin’s war on their country crystallised a sense of national identity. Privately-funded military battalions and civilian volunteers helped the regular army beat back Russian-supported separatists and collaborators, and recent nationwide polls reveal a greater sense of Ukrainian identity then prior to 2014. Support for joining Western institutions like the EU and NATO has also jumped while anti-Russian sentiments have hardened.
Although the Kremlin may hope these trends eventually reverse and pro-Russian leaders like former President Viktor Yanukovych come to power again, that’s probably wishful thinking. Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and war in eastern Ukraine actually removed millions of Russia-friendly voters opposed to NATO and the EU from Ukraine’s electorate, making it much more likely Kiev’s leaders will eventually make good on their promise to bring Ukraine into the West. Putin may have gained Crimea, but he lost the rest of Ukraine.
Putin’s interference in America’s elections also hasn’t worked out as planned. The Kremlin hoped Trump’s election would result in more Russia-friendly policies, but the opposite has occurred. Putin’s secret April proposal to completely reset the Russian-American relationship, and to cooperate on a whole series of global issues from Afghanistan to North Korea to cyber security, largely went nowhere. In August, Congress almost-unanimously passed new economic sanctions against Russia – including provisions directly targeting Putin’s oligarch allies – while also barring Trump from lifting previous sanctions without congressional review. Putin hoped Trump’s election would weaken NATO, but the president has reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to defend NATO allies. Trump has backed this up by continuing to deploy American forces to the Baltics while also sending additional troops to the Polish-Russian border. And, in part due to Trump’s consistent demands, Washington’s European allies are finally increasing their defence budgets.
While the Kremlin may still hold out hope Trump will eventually act on his continued desire to improve ties with Moscow, American domestic politics likely preclude this from happening. Some members of Trump’s own cabinet such as Defense Secretary James Mattis, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and national security adviser HR McMaster hold hawkish views on Russia and will probably push back against any attempt by Trump to improve the Russian-American relationship. More importantly, even if Trump wanted to normalise the relationship, the optics of doing so while Trump – and several of his closest relatives and advisors – remains under suspicion for colluding with Moscow’s attempts at electoral interference makes this politically implausible. Indeed, the investigation into Russian meddling provides incentive for Trump to appear tough on Russia to insulate him from accusations that he’s a secret Russian puppet – something officials advocating supplying arms to Ukraine are taking advantage of.
Putin establishing closer ties with China also doesn’t represent the threat some Americans fear. The Chinese economy dwarfs Russia’s and this economic imbalance likely relegates Russia to the role of junior partner in any possible alliance.
Moscow’s military cooperation with China also represents less then meet the eye. Though joint military exercises have increased, these are unlikely to produce any kind of formal anti-Western alliance. Even worse for Putin, Moscow’s new willingness to sell Beijing its most advanced arms may actually undermine Russia’s long-term geopolitical position. Underlying mistrust between the two Eurasian powers dating back decades still exists, and if one day a revanchist China seeks to reclaim its historic Siberian territory Russia will regret Putin’s decision to pursue short-term economic benefit at the expense of its national security.
To be clear, Putin can point to some genuine political accomplishments. Beyond his successful Syrian diplomacy, other key Middle Eastern countries have also been rushing to curry favour with him. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has visited Putin multiple times, asking him to respect Israel’s interests in Syria. And in what many observers considered a historic development, King Salman bin Abdulaziz – accompanied by a 1,500 person delegation – became the first Saudi leader to visit Moscow. The two countries signed multiple agreements, including a remarkable deal for Riyadh to buy Russia’s advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile system.
Putin may have emerged as a Middle East power broker, but his gains elsewhere are tenuous. It’s time to realise that claims of his geopolitical genius are more myth then reality.