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    Middle East
     Jul 31, '14

Putin edges toward a personal Waterloo
By Ehsan M Ahrari

The final verdict is already in: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is the new bad man and the face of a new "villain" of the West. There are no tongue-in-cheek descriptions of him along the lines of eloquence of Winston Churchill when he depicted Russia as " ... a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma". Today, Putin may be described as the reincarnation of Stalin and Peter the Great, in terms of his obsession for seizing superpowerdom for his native Russia.

In that context, addressing Putin in the voice of Niccolo Machiavelli, German strategic thinker Josef Joffe labeled him a

"true Machiavellian" who knows the art of exercising "economy of violence", meaning the use of "just enough violence".

Joffe went on to state:
With the Second Crimean War, you also outdid Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev. Stalin was actually a timid man, who didn't go beyond what his World War II armies had occupied. Khrushchev was a wild-eyed adventurist who almost unleashed World War III over Cuba. Yet you, Mr President, have been both ruthless and prudent - just what I prescribed in The Prince. You Russians have distilled my wisdom into a pithy phrase: Kto kovo - who dominates whom? And you have beautifully executed my central idea. I never preached violence to the max, but the "economy of force" - how to get more with less. The Crimean caper was a masterpiece of smart power politics." You did everything right. You grabbed an opportunity when you saw it.
Putin's chief weapons are his revanchist ideology and billions of dollars that he hopes to earn from trading Russia's precious gas to China and Europe (until the European Union decides to stop using it). Regarding how to develop various tactics for materializing his revanchist fervor, he initially appeared somewhat uncertain. However, he is fully cognizant that economic bankruptcy brought about the collapse of the former Soviet Union. He is determined to avoid that, but is going about seeking Russia's reentry into superpowerdom in a wrong-headed way.

Putin's strategy - if one cares to label it as such - is not aimed at developing a powerful economy, building strong institutions, evolving a democratically vibrant legislature, and creating a highly productive civil and military research and development sectors, but by basing his developmental strategy on the sheer buying/spending power of revenues generated through signing long-term gas deals with China and other energy-starved industrial nations.

However, a strategy that is based on manufacturing Russia's dream of becoming a hollow great power appears to be headed for certain chaos. Now, more than ever, Western minds are busy plotting new schemes to entangle the rowdy Russian bear in the enduring webs of stringent and coordinated economic sanctions. Thus, Putin's greatest challenge is how to evade his personal waterloo.

Outsmarting Obama
Things were going great for the old Vladimir Putin as he appeared to outmaneuver President Barack Obama in the case of the ongoing Syrian conflict. It was the highly unsettling political environment of the post-Arab Awakening Middle East that created the impression that Obama was dealing with Russia from a position of weakness regarding Syria and elsewhere. A general understanding was that Vladimir Putin dealt a coup de grace to President Obama's declared intention to take military action against the regime of Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against his civilian population during the ongoing civil war.

The fact of the matter was that, even though Obama had declared his intention for taking limited military action against Syria, his heart was not in it. He was trying desperately to get out of Afghanistan as a victor, while President Hamid Karzai appeared intent (wittingly or unwittingly) to make a loser out of the United States in a country that is famously known as "the graveyard of empires".

Public opinion polls inside the United States had clearly indicated that Americans were fed up with the option of starting another war, no matter how limited or short it is originally promised to be. So, Putin's "intervention" - if it can be called that - was both timely and very much supported US interests.

Regarding the Syrian conflict, what made Obama looked "weak" was that he gave Russia and its support for any major resolution undeserved visibility and importance. If that statement is accepted as substantially correct, then it is also because President Obama did not have any other choice. The US had learned its recent bitter lesson in the aftermath of the 2011 ouster of the Gaddafi regime in Libya that was carried out under the auspices of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Consequently, today's Libya has emerged as a highly unstable place, with al-Qaeda-related groups very much alive and growing, and a country where a US ambassador and three other embassy personnel were murdered by the terrorists.

Obama knows that, militarily speaking, it would be easy to destroy Assad's civilian-killing machine and even to create an environment that would enable him to experience the fate of Muammar Gaddafi. However, he is also worried about the implications of that action on the security of Israel.

Syria has already emerged as the new "Jihadistan", where even al-Qaeda's perpetration of violence appears mild compared to what the new ranks of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or its latest name, Islamic State) jihadists were doing there. That is why the US was not eager to jump into the foray, but was prepared to allow the Saudi and Qatari financial and military support of the Islamists without even disparaging it. No one in the West has the courage to say that there are not likely to be any victors in Syria or in Iraq.

While the US weighs the modalities of an era after the fall of the Syrian president and and continues to hesitate about arming the anti-regime forces, Russia and Iran do not manifest even a modicum of hesitancy or timidity in supporting the Assad regime. For them, the alternative to Assad is equally grave. For the foreseeable future, both of them may lose any chances of retaining their strategic presence or its attendant sway in the Levant for the following two reasons.

First, the post-Assad regime in Syria, in all likelihood, would be a Sunni Islamist-dominated one. In that capacity, it would be staunchly opposed to any presence of Russia and Iran. That potential appears perfectly appropriate to Washington, but the potential for the establishment of a stridently anti-US and anti-Israeli regime in Syria carries a greater sense of apprehension.

Second, if Assad is ousted, largely as a result of the endeavors of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, then the nature of the internal distribution of power in Lebanon also would be drastically transformed. It would turn against Hezbollah, which has remained a major actor inside that polity, and against Iran, which has exercised considerable influence inside that country largely by nurturing Hezbollah as a major paramilitary organization as well as an influential political party. No wonder Moscow and Tehran are of one mind regarding the implications of a post-Assad Lebanon for their respective security interests.

Where Putin had a visible advantage over Obama was the fact that the military rulers of Egypt were not terribly happy with the fact that Washington had become tepidly friendly with the military junta and had been urging the return of democracy. The highly amateurish but power hungry new Pharaoh of Egypt encountered no such tentative response from Moscow. In fact, Putin, quite cleverly, endorsed so-called "Field Marshal" Abdullah Fattah al-Sisi's presidential ambitions during his visit to Moscow in February this year.

But here is where Obama might gain the upper hand. The post-Arab Awakening environment of the Middle East and North Africa is so unsettling and unpredictable that no one knows when the next political storm will develop and what or who will become its next victim.

By remaining hesitant about ousting Assad and by tepidly urging the new dictators of Egypt to relinquish political power, the United States may be in a safer position than Russia, which has adopted an unadulterated Machiavellian approach by supporting the currently longest surviving murderous regime in Syria and by giving a public nod to the future dictator of Egypt.

However, if (or most precisely, when) things go sour in Syria and Egypt, Obama may be rewarded for hedging his bets, but not Putin. Russia is most likely to be ousted from Syria, and the next rulers of Egypt (that is, successors to the military dictators) are most likely to be eagerly seeking support and assistance from the United States.

A personal Waterloo
Putin has not only been unhappy about the loss of the Soviet Union as one of the superpowers - which he called the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century - but also thought that only by adopting revanchist policies would he be able to restore Russia's lost territories. He put that belief to the test by militarily taking over Crimea, which was "gifted" to Ukraine by then dictator Nikita Khrushchev in 1954.

But Putin's revanchist proclivities have sown the seeds for the potential collapse of his leadership, his personal Waterloo. His style of interstate conflict resolution through land grab has long become a thing of the past. He not only acquired Crimea by invading Ukraine, but also manifested all designs to create a so-called autonomous region in the Eastern part of that country. His use of Russian security forces to destabilize Ukraine and his assertion to take whatever actions necessary to guarantee the security of Russian speaking citizens in the neighboring states sounded loud alarm bells in the West, and especially within the polities of former members of the now-defunct Warsaw Pact.

Putin acted like a man who has no sense of history (it has been alleged that he has never read any history books and is known for his palpable intolerance for detail) or even minimal understanding of how much fear a resurgent and especially a revanchist Russia could create inside the former members of the Soviet Union and Eastern/Central Europe.

America has been slow to adopt a confrontational policy toward feisty Putin, but it finally got around to steadily and resolutely unsheathing one of its most potent weapons: the ratcheting up of economic sanctions and demanding similar sanctions from the EU.

Until recently, Putin had been lucky, because the EU not only has turned against militarism since the end of World War II - which means it has introduced drastic reductions in its military preparedness - but it also has developed a complex web of business/economic ties with Russia. Germany and Italy top that list. Even France, which appeared critical of the Russian militancy, was adamant about delivering to Russia two French-made Mistral-class helicopter attack carriers (the total cost of the deal: 1.2 billion euros, or US$1.6 billion).

Only recently, Germany - the EU's largest economy, Russia's leading trading partner, and a country that relies heavily on Russian gas - showed its willingness to impose tough economic sanctions on Russia. The suspected Russian role in the downing of the Malaysian airliner MH-17 and the Kremlin's palpable delay tactics surrounding the inquiry into that event were factors that sped up the agreement by the EU, which is notorious for its snail-paced decision-making process, especially those involving contentious issues. Even then, the EU agreed to let France go through with the sale of its Mistral-class ship to Russia.

As the EU stiffens its resolve to impose economic sanctions on Russia - especially in the areas of energy trade, targeting that country's major banks, and disallowing the export of dual-use technology to Russia - Putin's dream of his country's emergence as a superpower is likely to turn into a pipedream. It should be pointed out, however, that, even in the absence of those economic sanctions, the likelihood of Russia's transformation into a superpower is slim, at best.

The question becomes whether Putin will be able to survive a potential backlash to his power and leadership from the Russian populace. However, given the past stamina of the Russians to live through economic hardship, Putin and the Russian people are likely to live through this Putin-made phase of hardship that they are likely to encounter. In that case, Putin's personal Waterloo will still materialize in the form of a denial of Great Power status to Russia, as Western economic sanctions continue to strengthen, possibly on a prolonged basis.

Dr Ehsan M Ahrari (ahrari@earthlink.net) is CEO of Strategic Paradigms, Defense and Foreign Affairs Consultancy.

(Copyright 2014 Ehsan M Ahrari)

Crime (Israel) and punishment (Russia) (Jul 30, '14)



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