Modern Russian history has featured a number of political leaders that have managed to shift the country’s future direction and preserve its global influence. Among them is the incumbent Russian President Vladimir Putin.
What has distinguished Putin from other global leaders has been his ability to remain calm and collected when the odds are stacked against him and his country.
Then, after careful deliberation he surprises his opponents with a very strong message that sometimes includes a military move that places his opponents in a defensive position.
The Georgian crisis in 2008 was a prime example of such deliberation. When the Georgian government led by former president Mikhail Sakashvili attempted to quell the Russian separatist rebellion in the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Putin, who was acting as Russian prime minister at the time, ordered Russian forces into Georgia and managed to defeat the Georgian army in nine days of war that resulted in preserving the Russian separatist gains.
The move was seen as an act of aggression by Russia in many global political circles, but it sent a message that Putin and Russia were willing to go to war to protect Russian nationals even within countries that had ceded from the former Soviet Union.
A similar situation occurred during the ongoing Ukrainian-Russian war following the ousting of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych.
Putin supported Russian separatists in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk and Luhansk, and he managed to occupy parts of East Ukraine and annex Crimea, a strategically situated region where ethnic Russians represent 65 per cent of its 2.3 million population.
Putin was believed to be acting in reaction to US involvement in these countries in order to send the message that Russia would not tolerate US political or military involvement in countries on its borders.
The former US Obama administration, whose aides were seen among Ukrainian protesters against Yanukovych, dealt with Putin recklessly and arrogantly, which resulted in the latter gaining more ground in areas that were traditionally US domains such as the Middle East.
The Obama administration believed that Russia would yield to its demands after a series of economic and diplomatic sanctions had been imposed on it. Obama even bragged about how “smart” the sanctions were.
However, before long Putin had turned the tables and managed to sign $400 billion in contracts and numerous arms deals across the Middle East and China. He even administered rigorous financial and economic reforms in order to withstand American and Western sanctions.
Putin’s next few political moves, especially in the Middle East, may define his legacy as Russian leader. For decades, he has been a supporter of the Iranian regime, and Russia delivered the nuclear technology that enabled the Iranians to build eight nuclear plants, some of which were aimed at enriching uranium capable of producing nuclear weapons.
Putin’s ambitions are not about resurrecting the former Soviet Union, since he has indicated in many speeches that he does not wish to live in any other era than the present one, despite saying that he regrets the manner in which the Soviet Union collapsed and the adverse effects this had on the Russian people.
He is quite aware of the dangers of over-expanding his country’s foreign entanglements at the expense of its economic and social welfare, as he does not want to see domestic disputes in Russia itself.
Putin’s handling of the Syrian conflict is a prime example of the Russian state’s acting decisively at times of uncertainty, when the Western side has been dragging its feet in settling the conflict. Putin’s decision to fight the Islamic State (IS) group on its home turf in Syria and protect his long-standing ally in the shape of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is a far cry from the initial position of Washington and its allies, who were seen to be dilly-dallying in addressing the challenge posed by IS.
Four years after the Russian and later Western intervention in Syria, the presence of IS in Syria and Iran is a thing of the past. But one can well imagine how far the terrorist group would have expanded and what historical cities it would have reduced to ruins had IS with its black flags not been beaten back by the Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict.
Yet, Putin has successfully maintained a careful balance of diplomatic relations with the opposing axis. He maintains an extremely good relationship with Egypt and a personal one with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.
At the same time, he maintains a good relationship with the Turkish regime led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as well as the Iranian regime.
Both regimes are arch-rivals to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but Putin has managed to keep his diplomatic relations separate.
Thus far, Putin has kept diplomatic relations open in an effort to play the role of mediator should conflict erupt. Russia still sells substantial amounts of arms to Egypt, and it has also signed a contract to supply S-400 missiles to Turkey.
The latter deal has caused ripples inside the western camp and NATO, as the US administration has expressed its explicit objection to the deal and has already imposed sanctions on Turkey, including ceasing to supply it with F-35 fighter jets.
Some have seen this as Putin’s way of driving a wedge inside the NATO camp and slowly luring the Turkish state nearer to Russia.
This divide-and-conquer strategy has been working thus far, and the Turkish president seems to be in a conundrum about honouring his country’s contractual obligations and purchasing the S-400 system with all its perks or maintaining the long-standing NATO alliance and receiving the new F-35s.
Putin has also strengthened his country’s relations with China, since the latter, the rising economic and military superpower, has laid down its historical differences and feuds with Russia.
Putin’s $400 billion deal for oil exports to China, along with many lucrative arms deals, has secured China as a friend and ally in the face of the West.
Moreover, it has opened the door to Chinese investments in the Russian economy to replace those Western investments that tumbled as a result of the political events and tensions of the last decade.
Despite the above successes, Russia’s relations with the EU countries remain strained as a result of the events in Ukraine and alleged political assassination attempts by Russian former spies in the UK.
Nevertheless, the Europeans know better than to turn Putin into a full-blown enemy, even if they are wary of his political moves and years of rapprochement efforts.
These have not altered the lack of trust between the two sides. Despite everything, Europe remains a critical partner for Russia that Putin cannot do without, and thus he has attempted to keep the rapprochement efforts going while maintaining Russia’s national interests abroad.
Overall, Putin’s leadership of Russia has kept it as a major player in all the world’s major conflicts. From Middle East conflicts such as in Syria, Iran and Libya to Latin American ones such as in Venezuela, Russia remains a key player in global conflicts backed by its ever-growing military capability and an economy that has survived harsh sanctions and several falls.
It remains to be seen, however, how the Russians will react should a new war occur in the Middle East, most probably one that involves Iran.
Putin will have to calculate the winnings and losses when addressing the Iranian issue, and even with the Iranian ties to Moscow he may not place all his chips in support of one of the most-abhorred regimes in the world.
But his cunning political prowess will be essential to prevent an escalation should it occur, while at the same time maintaining good relations with other Middle Eastern players such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Time has shown that Putin generally comes out the winner in most of the conflicts he has been involved in.
*The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Putin’s upcoming political moves