What does a great-power autocrat have to do to get some respect? Vladimir Putin would like to know.
It is clear, from Putin’s words and deeds, that one of his goals is to bring Russia to the status in the world that the Soviet Union occupied during the Cold War: one of the two superpowers. But he faces many obstacles, not least within Russia itself.
Russia is no longer “Upper Volta with missiles.” Upper Volta, for one thing, is now Burkina Faso. Its GDP is $30.88 billion; Russia’s is $3.781 trillion. And the quote actually referred to the Soviet Union. The US GDP, however, is about $17.95 trillion. Russia comes in seventh in the world, between Germany and Brazil. In GDP per capita, Russia at 73rd does somewhat worse, below Estonia and Lithuania at 64 and 65, and way below the US at 19.
Economics is only one way to measure influence, although it helps to determine others. Russia lacks the network of allies that the United States has built up; its military is smaller by a significant amount; its news media and other cultural products are less influential. Russia covers a wide span of longitude, but it is far enough north that many of its ports are iced in during winter. Russia’s propaganda network, which includes RT, formerly Russia Today, Sputnik International, and a great many troll factories, is strong and sometimes influences mainstream media in the United States. Its cyberwarfare capabilities are strong. And it has about as many nuclear weapons as does the United States.
A great many factors go into Russian actions. In this post, I will consider only Putin’s desire to build Russian prestige and influence. Like all analysis of Putin’s and Russia’s motivations, this is largely speculation. But the search for prestige seems to thread through Russia’s recent actions.
Crimea and the Donbas
Putin’s response to the Maidan protests and President Viktor Yanukovych’s flight to Russia was to annex the Crimean Peninsula, largely peacefully, on March 18, 2014. Success there, including a population favorable to the annexation, emboldened him to try something similar in Ukraine’s Donbas provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. Putin seemed to believe that the Russian language united people in a Russkiy Mir – a Russian world loyal to the Motherland.
The Donbas had prospered during Soviet times as a mining center for coal and steel. That industry had declined, and the area is poor and in need of new development. Russian is the first language for many living in the area, a second language for others. It may have seemed to be a perfect conquest after Crimea, and perhaps a beginning of a land bridge from Russia to Crimea. That area had been called Novorossiya under the Russian Empire, and the term began to show up in Russian descriptions of southern Ukraine.
Protests began in the Donbas in March 2014 and escalated to military action. But Russkiy Mir turned out to be weak at best. Russia managed to acquire a few militarily mediocre sympathizers. It became necessary to supplement them with regular Russian troops, who were said to be volunteers on vacation from their regular duty. The Ukrainian military put up strong resistance, and the conflict remains stalemated, with low-level military action continuing. The Minsk Agreements are an attempt at negotiating an end to the fighting, but Russia and its proxies continue to violate them.
Russkiy Mir and Novorossiya have disappeared from official Russian discussion. Russia is, however, building a bridge to Crimea across the Kerch Strait from Krasondar Krai in Russia. An electrical cable has been laid across the Strait. The economic situation in Crimea is now worse than it was before Russia’s annexation. Tourism, a large part of the economy, has dried up.
Putin’s actions, most recently an agreement to discuss the Minsk Agreements with Germany and France on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in September, indicate that he wants a great-power accord over the heads of the Ukrainians.
The only nations that have recognized Crimea as a part of Russia are Afghanistan, Cuba, Kyrgyzstan, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela. The United States and Europe put economic sanctions into effect against Russia for its annexation of Crimea and war in Donbas. The sanctions continue, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently said that she sees no end to the EU sanctions until Russia withdraws from Crimea and obeys the Minsk Agreements.
Expected/Hoped For Response: Russia is recognized as a great power through an agreement with France, Germany, and perhaps the United States. Putin believes that the United States has used Kiev as a pawn, much as he has used the insurgents in Donbas. Putin would also like to extend Russia’s influence to Russian speakers in other countries via the concept of Russkiy Mir; more here.
Actual Response: Ukraine becomes more Europe-oriented, US and EU levy sanctions against Russia, EU peace talks that include Ukraine.
Russia has been providing equipment to Bashar al-Assad’s government since the civil war started in 2011 and escalated to air support in September 2015. Early on, Russia suggested that it could work together with the United States against “terrorists.” However, Russian air operations seemed designed to ignore the presence of US aircraft, and some of their bombing was against insurgents backed by the US. Part of Russia’s purpose seems to be a seat at the negotiating table and possibly to work out something bilaterally with the United States.
The Russian presence has expanded. Russia claims that it is targeting only “terrorists,” but it seems to define that word as any group that opposes the Assad government. Additionally, Russia and the Assad government are using cluster bombs, incendiary bombs, and chlorine against civilians and bombing hospitals and markets, all of which are war crimes. Russia used similar tactics in Chechnya in 1999, where they were successful in putting down a rebellion.
Peace talks for Syria began in January 2016. Russia is included as a participant and has a voice in shaping the participation of the many Syrian groups involved in the war. Temporary halts have been negotiated in the fighting, but they have quickly broken down, largely because of Russian and Syrian actions.
Expected/Hoped For Response: Negotiations over Syria possibly including removal of sanctions for Ukraine as a package deal. Retain Syrian ally. Extend influence in the area.
Actual Response: Low-level operational agreements on deconflicting Russian and US air operations. Participant in peace talks. No coupling to Ukraine.
Hamadan Air Base
For a few missions, Russian bombers refueled at Hamadan Air Base in Iran, the first time Iran has allowed another country to use one of its bases since before the 1979 revolution. The first reports were that the Russian planes were based at Hamadan, then corrected to refueling only, and now Iran announces that Russia will no longer be allowed to use the air base.
It looks like Putin is trying to ramp up public perceptions of Russian involvement in Syria. In addition to extending Russia’s Middle East alliances to using an Iranian base, Russia again launched cruise missiles from the Mediterranean Sea into Syria. Presumably the combination was intended to show Russia’s military might, perhaps even dominance, in Syria.
But the agreement with Iran went bad. Apparently Iran, sensitive to the idea of a foreign power basing military equipment inside the country, had wanted the arrangement to remain secret. It’s hard to see how that could be maintained, given American air surveillance, but Iran’s internal politics demanded it. For Russia, the story of its spreading influence seems to have been more important than Iran’s sensitivities. Both countries left open the possibility of future use of the air base, but Iran made it clear that the current operation had ended.
It is not clear what Iran would get in return for letting Russia use the base.
Expected/Hoped For Response: US and others would see Russian power as growing.
Actual Response: Obvious that differences remain between Russia and Iran, despite mutual support for Assad.
Russia has also offered aid to President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi of Yemen in the war in that country.
In denying a report that Russia had demanded to use Incirlik Air Base for bombing raids into Syria, the Turkish Prime Minister also noted that such a thing might be possible. The Russian government outlets RT and Sputnik International featured the second part of those remarks. Incirlik is where the United States bases some tens of nuclear weapons for NATO. RT also mentions a report, probably placed by Russia, that the US might be moving the nuclear weapons from Turkey to Romania. Jeffrey Lewis provides a more detailed analysis. More background here.
Expected/Hoped For Response: Enlarge number of allies, irritate NATO.
Actual Response: Yemen developing, Incirlik reports debunked.
Recent Movement Around Ukraine
Russia recently accused Ukraine of sending saboteurs into Crimea and has increased its troops on Ukraine’s borders. The saboteur story seems to have fallen apart, and the numbers of troops seem insufficient for an invasion. Putin made much of the incident and canceled a meeting of the Normandy Group, which oversees the Minsk Agreements. Violence in the Donbas has increased. Russia is planning a series of exercises and readiness drills in the area for September and October.
Expected/Hoped For Response: Discredit Ukraine in Normandy negotiations, negotiate directly with US?
Actual Response: Developing.
Hacking The Election
A number of recent hacks, including of the Democratic National Committee, have been provisionally attributed to Russia by the United States government. Julian Assange has published some of the material on Wikileaks and claims to have more that he will release later in an attempt to influence the US election. Sputnik International and RT don’t bother to conceal a preference for Donald Trump.
Usually both perpetrator and victim of hacking attacks are circumspect about releasing information and attributing the attack. It appears that part of the message is that Russia wants to influence the US election, probably toward chaos rather than a Donald Trump win. Trump is casting doubt on the election results already, and the idea that they might be hacked also plays into a distrust of democratic processes that the Kremlin would welcome.
The willingness of the US government to attribute the hacks to Russia alerts people to possible misinformation among the revelations; emails might be changed or spurious emails inserted. Advance notice will help to protect voting machines from tampering.
Expected/Hoped for Response: Undermined confidence in US politcal process.
Actual Response: Preventive measures against hacking and misinformation. Strong anti-Trump reaction among communities of eastern European extraction. Julian Assange looks more than ever like a front for the Russians.
Putin seems to hold a 19th-century great-power view of the world: The great powers direct the actions of the nations in their spheres of interest. Thus, he believes that the Maidan protests of 2014 or the the Russian protests of 2011-2013 were directed by the US, for example, and that it is totally appropriate for the great powers to negotiate the futures of lesser nations. On August 23, the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, this belief has unpleasant resonances.
International organizations developed after World War II have intended to allow all nations self-determination, so Putin’s worldview is in conflict with European and American assumptions about the nature of international relations. Putin recognizes this and has said that he wants to change that situation. However, his actions so far have mostly produced blowback against Russia.
Putin’s worldview has led to misreadings and overreach. Russian-speaking Ukrainians did not desert Kiev to join Mother Russia. Iranians expect their agreement on confidentiality on the use of Hamadan Air Base to be respected. The government and media of the United States do not react in the same way that the Russian government and media would. One has to wonder if Putin expected US Russian speakers to respond favorably to attempts to manipulate the presidential campaign.
How is Putin likely to respond to having his ambitions thwarted? So far, he has been durable; when one thing (Ukraine) doesn’t work, he tries another (Syria). His escalations do not yet reach to direct military challenges of the United States. But he has to be becoming frustrated.
Image Credit: Die Welt