May 03 2016

Putin's most dangerous game

You can find the full transcript here:

Putin’s most dangerous game.

Vladimir Putin’s distinctive face has been appearing all over the global newsfeed recently, reminding everyone from Barack Obama to the most disinterested youth that Russia can’t be ignored, can’t be contained and must be respected. Putin for the past two years has been listed by Forbes as the most powerful man in the world, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he claimed title for a third year in a row. Obama, who is leader of the most powerful country the world has ever seen has been languishing in second. Yet Russia is the 9th largest economy in the world, practically dwarfed by the scale of US strength. Putin doesn’t only play a dangerous game, he revels in it, and it’s where he as a leader is in his element.

Putin is widely known for being more interested in foreign policy and power rather than domestic issues and policy. The recent campaign in Syria is another example of Putin’s preferred field of leadership. By blowing up the situation in the face of the American led coalition, both diplomatically and militarily he has shown why he is the most powerful man in the world.

All of a sudden, it’s Russia that could be the driving force behind the defeat of ISIS, not America, and that could signal a massive change in the global status quo. In order for this to take place, Putin actually needs to succeed in his mission of stabilising the faltering Assad regime in Syria. But this endeavour is more than a dangerous game; it is fraught with monumental risks that could lead to an even more liquidised power structure and more instability.

Further involvement by another foreign power in the wickedly complex situation in Syria, on the face of it seems like a disastrous idea, but for Putin there is method in his madness. Russian planes and warships are bombing both ISIS and other threats to Assad, and it’s without cooperation of any coalition forces. From a Western perspective that appears counterintuitive, but if viewed through the eyes of Putin’s ruthless authoritarian ideology and his method of translating his ideological perception into Russian success, his actions are in line with what he believes will make Russia the superpower it once was.

First of all, let’s remember that only a few months ago Russia faced international isolation in response to the Ukraine crisis. His blatant support for the Ukrainian rebels masked by masses of denials left him in a weak place internationally. His country suffocated from sanctions and the collapse of oil. Now, only a few months later, Putin is able to criticise the entire West in front of the world’s media. On US soil. In New York. So, clearly something has gone right for him. By employing his traditional style of ruthless realpolitik in supporting Bashar al-Assad and his villainous regime he has been able to lay bare the feeble and incoherent strategy employed in Syria by the Western coalition forces.

“Rather than bringing about reforms, an aggressive foreign interference has resulted in a brazen destruction of national institutions and the lifestyle itself. Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty and social disaster. Nobody cares a bit about human rights, including the right to life. I cannot help asking those who have caused the situation; do you realize now what you’ve done?” ­– Vladimir Putin speaking at the UN general assembly, 28th September 2015.

Secondly, by internationalising this conflict through placing another advanced military directly into the country, Putin has been able to openly show the flaws of the American-led ideology that has dominated the globe for over a century. As the course of the Syrian civil war began to take shape, Russia constantly blocked all attempts by the UN Security Council to intervene. As an ally to the Syrian government, Putin wasn’t going to allow another US led intervention to take place.

Moscow has consistently condemned humanitarian intervention missions as a cover for America’s bid to use its unrivalled power to reshape the world through a selective morality that shows the world that their way is the right way. This skewed ideological cover up allows them to move attention away from its allies’ friends’ and their own misdeeds. The UN-sanctioned, NATO-led war against Qaddafi’s Libya was the last straw for the Kremlin, and proved to them that such operations don’t create happy endings, even for Americans.

Ever since Libya, Putin hasn’t hesitated to use his veto in order to prevent Western intervention in Syria as the region went from small Arab Spring protests to a full-blown civil war. And if you look at the history of Western interventions since the end of World War Two, this view does have some validity.

By stubbornly supporting Assad throughout the episodic descent into the current situation in Syria, all American-led attempts to create a meaningful change in the country have been stymied. When ISIS exploded onto the scene, all the preconditions that one would assume require an international intervention were presumably met. But hindered by Russia, and the weariness created by Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan the current process of airstrikes conducted by an international coalition is only an ineffective half measure. This ineffectiveness has allowed Putin to take charge through a  new coalition of the equally ruthless Shia nations: Syria, Iran and Iraq. It will be their turn to attempt to solve the situation as they see fit, by destroying the Sunni ISIS but also the western and non-western backed rebels that at this moment in time pose more of a threat to Assad.

The Russian establishment is using its control of the media to portray Putin as the one who is dealing with ISIS once and for all. By stirring up the extremely nationalistic Russian population through another international intervention into unconditional support for the most popular leader on the planet, Putin is exploiting his expertise in international affairs for domestic gain.

What Putin wants from Syria is not necessarily Assad as the head of a reformed Syrian state, as this is completely unrealistic. His desires are concerns that are closer to home. What he wants is international recognition that Russia is a legitimate player in the Middle East through which he will secure a seat at the final negotiating table – whenever that might be – and which will gain him influence both international and domestically.

This is Putin acting where he is best, through diplomacy and warfare. Damaged by falling oil and the Ukraine crisis Russia’s economy is shrinking, much of its infrastructure is in a dire state and capital is fleeing the country. A child born in Russia has roughly the same life expectancy as one born in Haiti. And yet the dangerous game played by Putin with his ever weaker cards is to put all his chips behind Assad and commit everything to his success.

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