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Naveed Ahmad

Russia, the rival superpower?

"Putin plans to wear down the global system through a non-standard approach," writes Ahmad [AFP]

Date of publication: 10 January, 2017

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The long read: Russia is masterfully engineering the fall of the status quo by creating chaos, deception and a crisis of credibility, writes Naveed Ahmad.

On New Year's Eve of 1999, Vladimir Putin became President of Russia. He wasn't a regular politician but director of the FSB, the country's prime intelligence agency that succeeded the Soviet-era KGB.

Come 2017, he is reshaping the global system with the illusion of Russia becoming the superpower it used to. 

The year 2016 will be remembered for Putin's triumphs, ranging from Erdogan's apology for shooting down intruding Russian jet, to Trump's electoral surprise and UNSC-endorsed Syria ceasefire after the fall of Aleppo.

The Obama administration, for instance, retreated on almost every issue, tacitly endorsing the impression that Russia is a superpower with the ability to embarrass or hurt the US interest time and time again.

The adulate reporting in the global press could not delude Vladimir Putin. "America is a great power - today probably the only superpower. We accept that," he told Russia's main economic forum in June 2016. Does it mean that the czar of today does not aspire to be the most powerful man in the world? Or is Russia so far from rivaling the mighty US?

The former KGB agent witnessed the fall of Berlin Wall first hand over two decades ago, observed three centuries of Russian expansionism being undone, and saw his country shrink to its 17th century borders.

To him, the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster. His conclusion: Reassert or perish in history. The man also learnt that direct control of everything comes as too much of a burden.

Russia's strategy has many similarities with that of Osama bin Laden, though the Russians will be ever more lethal, and far less spectacular

Considering the military balance, Moscow cannot afford to fight a full-scale war in its current state of technological and numerical military preparedness. For instance, the world's largest nuclear arsenal that Putin commands, relies on technologically mediocre delivery systems, as well as other conventional military wherewithal. Add to that Russia's unexceptional GDP, resting at $1.3 trillion in 2015, which even fails to compete with Canada, Brazil and Italy.

Technological sophistication notwithstanding, Moscow never hid its anxiety over eastward expansion of NATO. The closer it comes to the Russian territory, the narrower the border becomes, with the plains not far off. Of its 150 million strong population, 77 percent lives in the European part and remainder reside in the Asian one.

An unorthodox approach

Aware of the strengths of his rivals and weaknesses of his own, Putin does not aspire to trounce Russia's challengers as it did after the Second World War. Instead, he plans to wear down the global system taking a non-standard approach. Vladislav Surkov, Putin's key policy aide, termed the policy as 'non-linear war' in a short story 'Without Sky', he published under pseudonym Natan Dubovitsky in 2014.

The president's blue-eyed man draws on his passion for stage and literature, and his experience in the military and intelligence services. Henry Kissinger is said to be one of the few non-Russian geniuses feeding into Putin's policy-scape.

Henry Kissinger is said to be one of the few non-Russian geniuses feeding into Putin's policy-scape

The 9/11 attacks saw Osama bin Laden and his clique aim to shatter concepts of trans-national security and globalisation. These acts might not have shaken the world's trust in the institutions, but an entirely new doctrine on pre-emptive security did develop.

Not only did it hoover up billions of dollars, which could have been invested in innovation and human development, but it also took a toll on modern values such social equality and religious diversity.

The Kremlin patiently observed the impact of al-Qaeda's slow and dirty war on the West. Indeed, its own strategy bears many similarities to that of Osama bin Laden, though the Russians will be ever more lethal, but far less spectacular and spontaneous.

Observing the two is akin to recording a time-lapse, lasting for years. Putin's strategy on 8 November delivered the desired goal of nursing a rash man with a nationalist but anti-globalist agenda, which included a trigger-happy but anti-NATO defense policy.

Putin's Kremlin is taking realpolitik to the next level by engaging in a war of subversion rather than domination

When Americans voted against the establishment candidate, they opted for a man promising to create a new world order. Though the politics of the post-truth era US president-elect rests on disinformation, hate and arrogance, he always obliged Putin with generous and flattering words.

Putin's Kremlin is taking realpolitik to the next level by engaging in a war of subversion, rather than one of domination.

Devoid of the veritable superpower aspirations and the structures of power, Russia is masterfully engineering the fall of the status quo by creating chaos, deception and a crisis of credibility of global norms such as democracy, and institutions such as the EU, NATO and the UN.

Leveraging the Syria conflict

Russia's active role in Syria was not primarily aimed at strengthening Assad, but overwhelming its rivals with a multifaceted conflict closer to their borders. Struggling to cope with large numbers of Syrian refugees, western nations have abandoned demands to oust Assad and contented themselves with a ceasefire leading up to some form of resolution.

Russia scored unexpected bonus points when its superiority as truce- or peacemaker was acknowledged not only by nearly all warring sides, but also by the UN Security Council's endorsement.

From Putin's standpoint, Russia's Syria intervention - costing $482 million up until March last year, introduced it as an effective major power in the Middle East with permanent military presence in Tartus. The US and western image as a reliable partner is tarnished as they continue to effectively bomb the IS from air and land.

Putin's decisive interventions in Syria and Ukraine also aim to baffle western decision-makers, financial sources and troops, in a set of conflicts across the Middle East, in order to leverage greater space in which to manage or bully states in the former Soviet Union.

A Eurasian union?

Throughout the 90s, Russia was bogged down in its internal issues ranging from economy to politics. But America's rather unsuccessful campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq have presented the Russian revivalist with an invaluable opportunity to woo back Belarus, Moldova and Armenia.

While seeking to realise the Eurasian Union, the Kremlin fancies reintegrating the economic, foreign and defense policies of Soviet republics. To achieve such a tall order, Putin needs to distract his western rivals with the Middle East, as well as other conflicts, sometimes being explicitly involved but mostly through covert actions of the FSB.

When Assad used chemical weapons against opposition held Syrian towns, Obama failed to stand true to his red line.

Since democracy, human rights and diversity bring people and nations closer together, the next world order won't subscribe to these principles

Putin played the masterstroke of seeking Syria's signing of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), thus ostensibly doing away with the weapons of mass destruction. Washington therefore had little leeway to oppose the move, or issue any punitive action against Damascus.

Russia gave some semblance of superpower prestige as the US lacked the will to take the initiative. While the world focused on Syria, Putin's envoys won back Armenia and eased ties with Georgia, which had nosedived after the Kremlin's 2008 invasion.

Eurasian Union started shaping up too when Tajikistan nodded affirmatively in December 2012 and Kyrgyzstan in May 2013. Russia has also chosen Kazakhstan to host future peace talks for Syria.

Countering the liberal worldview

Putin's worldview is based on an illiberal foundation. Since democracy, human rights and diversity bring people and nations closer together, the next world order won't subscribe to these principles.

Rather, it'll find comfort in working with democratically elected, autocratic leaders such as Trump and Erdogan. The currents set in motion by Moscow successfully disoriented an unanchored America of the Obama-Biden administration.

It's no coincidence that Europe is witnessing a growing number of popular nationalist leaders, who shower generous praise on Putin.

Russia's cyber-bullying stripped sophisticated institutions of their credibility, creating paranoia of infinite gamut. Rather than undertaking the laborious task of creating an alternative truth, Putin spread a smokescreen of ambiguity, a phenomenon the Oxford dictionary registers as 'post-truth'. 

Obama's responses to Putin have been chronically flawed

Obama's responses to Putin have been chronically flawed. Against his attacks on the core of America's democratic process, the US president adopted the mildest of retorts.

Could there be anything more pacified than declaring 35 diplomats persona non grata?

Instead a threat of tit-for-tat action at the right time could have acted as a better deterrent. The western sanctions have proven a double-edged sword for the Kremlin as while hurting on the financial plain, they benefit Moscow politically.

Not only do the underdog nations see victimised Russia as being one of them, but it also creates a wedge within the EU and NATO members. Moscow may be a weak economy but it's still not devastatingly vulnerable to the global system.

The defiance it projects using western curbs wins Russia its bloated status of a superpower, which is ready to pay the cost but take no action. 

In the Baltic, Russia is exerting continuous pressure to soften the rival bloc's air dominance. In 2016 alone, NATO air policing intercepted Russian military planes 110 times. The Kremlin hounded its adversaries but never attacked, the sole aim being to test readiness and instil uncertainty.

Russia has been cultivating various spheres of influence such as the Eurasian Union, mending fences with Taliban, and reaching the Arabian Sea via Pakistan's Gwadar port. Western democracies, meanwhile, debate the refugee crisis, counter-IS sleeper cells and managing conflict in Syria.

A Cold War foreign policy concept

Russia's foreign policy concept, signed by President Vladimir Putin and published on 1 December, declares the US as a threat to the country's national security. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, such language has been obsolete.

Russia called it the "Cold War doctrine," due to its premise of confrontation with the West. Its previous foreign policy concept, released in 2013, emphasised Russia being "an integral part of Europe" but the new document terms the EU as a risk, owing to its process of geopolitical expansion in Ukraine, the Balkans and Eastern Europe.

Donald Trump's presidency, in essence, serves Putin’s goal of greater volatility and disorder

If there is one country that not only comprehends Putin's Russia but also knows the art of dealing with her, it's China.

Over the past decade, Beijing has gradually decreased its dependence on Moscow by diversifying itself in its wider neighborhood as well as in the Middle East and Africa. In the realm of defense, for instance, the SU-35s will be China's last foreign fighter jet.

Neither Barack Obama nor Angela Merkel have been able to comprehend Russian policies and practice, or its manifestations in Eastern Europe or the Middle East. Donald Trump's presidency, in essence, serves Putin’s goal of greater volatility and disorder.

The Kremlin is well aware that its relationship with a Trump-led administration won't last forever, especially due to a deep divide within the Republican Party.

Besides the Washington establishment, America's NATO allies as well as Australia, Japan and South Korea are already nervous. There won't be any spoilers from Moscow for it's not on the losing side at all.

During the brief window of honeymoon with Trump, Putin will expect the new administration to lift the Ukraine-related sanctions, endorsement of wars in Syria and recognition of Crimea and a commitment to a freeze of NATO's eastward advance.

Interestingly, the architect of detente with the Soviets in the 1970s - Henry Kissinger - is well positioned to be the interlocutor, owing his clout with Putin and his close aides.



Naveed Ahmad is a Doha-based investigative journalist and academic with special focus on diplomacy, security and energy issues. Follow him on Twitter: @naveed360

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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