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Letter from Moscow: Vladimir Putin’s Pyrrhic Victories

Letter from Moscow: Vladimir Putin’s Pyrrhic Victories
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

A disillusioned tone, bleak observations, the sense that Russia might be approaching a stalemate: such was the context described in the discussions held last week in Moscow with a few think tanks on the world’s current state. Why this sudden blues among Muscovite interlocutors, a week after Vladimir Putin’s triumphal re-election for a fourth term? 

This could most probably be explained by the backlash, perhaps fleeting, of current events, and first and foremost of the Skripal case. No Russian analyst completely excludes the possibility of a state crime, whereas everyone raises reasonable doubts, which can be summarized as follows: when eliminating a treater abroad - a “legitimate operation”, according to a former military officer - one can chose to leave a signature, yet not such an ostentatious, despicable, and above all risky one, if anything in terms of potential collateral damage. “It is as if our agents had operated to the sound of the balalaïka and had left their musical instrument behind them” notes a Russian colleague. Hence the insinuation that an adverse service - “we have so many enemies now” - (sic) could have gotten a hold of novichok and tried to take the life of the double agent in order to discredit Russia. 

"Relationships with European capitals will stiffen up"

What is most striking is that our interlocutors, prompt in recent years to demonstrate their contempt for the Europeans decadency, do not underestimate the likely impact of this crime too many. Relationships with European capitals will stiffen up, at a time when Trump’s hands are indeed tight on Russia, when Moscow lacks a real interlocutor in Washington, when Russia should polish its image abroad on the eve of the World Cup, and when, above all, as we will see, Russia’s walk in the Middle East park is progressively turning into a thorny path. The other element clouding the atmosphere for Moscow’s foreign policy circles was the replacement of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by Mike Pompeo, and that of National Security Advisor General McMaster by John Bolton. As elsewhere, this new casting - which might still change - has been interpreted by Moscow as a significant sign of America’s tougher foreign policy, of the Iran nuclear deal’s approaching end and of a quarrelsome attitude towards North Korea.

According to our interlocutors, Russia will not come forward on either of these issues. Regarding Iran, we are told that Tehran and Moscow’s common interests remain limited and that there is no strategic alignment. Russians may hope  to make some commercial profits out of the United States’ withdrawal from the JCPOA but they primarily anticipate destabilizing domino-effects in the region. Iranians will to the least become more aggressive in Syria or elsewhere, and will most probably reembark on their quest for nuclear weapons, thus incenting other regional actors to do the same.  

"The window of opportunity for an exit from the political crisis in Syria seems to be closing down"

These are rather structural factors explaining the concern regarding Russia’s current position in the world. Did not President Putin, in particular thanks to Russia’s intervention in Syria, restore his country’s prestige and helped it endorse role of a central player in the Middle East? Such a success is fragile - people respond: the window of opportunity for an exit from the political crisis in Syria seems to be closing down, Assad is ultimately more influenced by his idiosyncrasies or by the Iranians than by Russian pressures and political settlement attempts, at the bilateral level when John Kerry was in office, and regionally now with Turkey and Iran, have reached their boundaries. Risks of a direct military confrontation between Iran and Israel, but also between the US and Russia, or between Turkey and several States are now the main priority. Everything is happening, according to an eminent specialist, as if the Kremlin had been incapable of turning his undisputed regional and military successes into a global political success. A general rise of tensions, following the likely dismantling of the Iran nuclear agreement, would further reduce Russia’s diplomatic maneuver in the region. Meanwhile, the silhouette of China’s hyperpower is getting closer. 

However, did not Mr Putin’s Russia precisely accumulate a mighty soft power, after all its cyberattacks and attempts to manipulate information? The same interlocutor responds: “Do you really think that Sputnik and Russia Today are of great benefit to us? We respond to our growing lack of economic and technological progress by using asymmetrical retaliations”

An academic, who has been focusing on his country’s foreign policy since the 80s, puts these interrogations into perspective: “After the USSR’s fall, we were confronted with two goals: rapprochement with the West and gathering former Soviet countries by our side. Experience has helped us realize that these two goals are not compatible. This has led us to increasingly contest the global order such that, as time went by, Russia has come to appear as a sort of global loose canon, following no real direction.”President Putin’s new mandate could have been that of a refocus, both on the international level as well as in the management of the economy. Yet current circumstances, our interlocutors fear, might encourage him to extend his challenging policy abroad. Besides, in the current foreign policy decision-making process, diplomats are marginalized, experts are hardly heard, and policies are made by the President and security forces.

"From a European perspective, what should most be feared in this new presidential term is the pursuit of Russian foreign policy’s headlong rush towards even more disruption of the international order."

In that sense, Mr Putin’s State of the Union speech on 1 March, which lengthily addressed the list of sophisticated weapons he may use to force the world to “listen to Russia”, is somewhat symbolic. Nevertheless, Muscovites are not losing their sense of humor. It is said that in the hours following the speech, Sergey Lavrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs since 2004, who some say is living on borrowed time, tried to reach out to his Minister of Defense colleague Sergey Shoigu. When he finally managed to speak to him on the phone, he told him: “Sergey Koujouguétovittch, I beg you to spare New York from your strikes plan, because this is where my daughter lives - With pleasure Sergey Viktorovitch, Shogi responded, but I have received phone calls from colleagues all day long. I have been asked to spare, for similar reasons, London, Paris, Geneva, Rome, Washington, Chicago, etc. Where will I be able to strike? - Lavrov hesitated for a few seconds and suggested: Voronej.”

Yet let us return to more serious, at least more urgent, matters. It can be induced that the above-mentioned statements are not necessarily representative of Russian leaders’ viewpoint. In the think tank environment, expectations are high - to say the least - regarding Mr Macron’s upcoming visit in May - if it is confirmed, which is not so sure given the post-Skripal context. Our interlocutors perceive the French President as one of the few potential bridges left between Putin and the West. From a European perspective, what should most be feared in this new presidential term is the pursuit of Russian foreign policy’s headlong rush towards even more disruption of the international order. 

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