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Putin’s aspirations lead Russia towards disaster

November 6, 2015 at 11:47 am

The Russian military operations in Syria still raise many questions regarding the objectives, limits, duration and chances of achieving their goal of reinstalling Moscow as a dominant world power.

Russia’s conflict with the West came about as a result of the deployment of a US missile shield in Europe, Washington’s update of its tactical nuclear weapons and NATO’s advancement towards its western border. After Putin’s enthusiastic efforts to achieve closer integration with Europe and the West in general during his first three years in power, he changed direction suddenly and worked towards building a strong state. His strategy was based on two axes: Russia’s near neighbours and those further away. He has sought to regain control of what he considers to be Russian territory annexed by neighbouring countries and to restore Moscow’s control in the former Soviet Union countries under the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians and Russian speakers. The goal behind the second axis is to limit America’s global role and influence and to allow Russia to play a prominent role in international decision-making.

These efforts include working towards Russia regaining its position in an international system based on bipolarity alongside the US. In order to achieve this, Putin launched economic and military programmes to regain balance within Russia and increase its ability to take regional and international action to impose its presence and boost its prestige.

Hence, he worked on strengthening Russia’s military presence in the former Soviet Union by means of military bases and strengthening the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. He also called for the formation of a customs union to include the former Soviet Union countries and for the adoption of a military doctrine based on reinforcing missile defences and the development of carrying systems for nuclear warheads, such as missiles, submarines and strategic bombs. Conventional weapons have also been modernised, with an operational command and naval fleet based permanently in the Mediterranean. In addition, a network of military bases has been built to house air defence forces, rapid reaction brigades and navy vessels deployed above the Arctic Circle.

Having adopted brinkmanship as a tactic, Putin is also doing a lot of muscle-flexing, and is hinting at the possibility of the outbreak of a world war. Russia’s spending on arms now exceeds 9 per cent of GDP as the president deploys aircraft and ships around the world.

The outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions sparked additional disputes between Russia and the West, especially after the latter’s intervention in Libya, depriving Russia of its piece of the cake, as well as threatening its interests in Syria. This pushed Russia into engaging in an indirect confrontation with the West by supporting the Syrian regime in its fight against the revolution and protecting the regime politically by using its veto at the UN on four occasions. Moscow has supplied Damascus with weapons, money and military experts, and has coordinated with Iran to prevent the Assad regime from collapsing under too much political and military pressure.

The moves by the European Union and NATO to allow Ukraine to join them irked Russia, due to Moscow’s imagining of a Eurasian Union. This has escalated the tension in the region, with Russia pushing ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine to hold a referendum and declare the establishment of the “Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republic”.

Russia has exploited the cool relations between the US a number of its allies, such as the Arab Gulf states on the back of the Iranian nuclear deal, and Egypt on the back of Washington’s reservations over political oppression, the use of excessive force against the Muslim Brotherhood and the politicisation of the judiciary. Putin has used this to make trade, arms and investment deals as well as contracts to build nuclear power plants, all in the hope of forcing Washington to deal with Russia as another world power.

This was achieved and Russia is now living with inflation and deflation due to Western economic sanctions and the fall in oil and gas prices. Some Russian observers predict the fall of oil prices to $40 or even $20 per barrel. It is worth noting that for every $1 drop per barrel of oil, Russia loses $2.5 billion.

We must not forget that a fifth of the external debt of $700 billion and the debt accumulated by Russian companies, which amounts to $500 billion, must be repaid this year; nor that capital ranging from $100 and $200 billion was taken out of Russia in 2014. An increase in oil and gas supply after recent large discoveries will reform the market and impose a new balance in which Russia’s share will drop; gas and oil represent about 74 per cent of Russian exports and its revenues make up 50 per cent of the state’s resources, both of which are the main source of hard currency. Western business investments are likely to be withdrawn; indeed, 87 companies have already liquidated or reduced their presence in Russia. This has caused a fall in the value of the rouble; the exchange rate against the dollar has fallen by 20 per cent. It is worth noting that at the beginning of 2014, $1 was equal to around 33 roubles; it is now 66 roubles. This has led to a 30 per cent increase in the price of basic foodstuffs and the decline of growth to below zero per cent.

Despite the fact that Russia’s revenues from oil and its by-products, and natural gas, reached about $3.2 trillion between 2000 and 2013, it did not result in the modernisation of the Russian economy, its diversification or ending its dependence on the export of raw materials and the import of advanced technology. It was growth without development. This caused a contradiction in Russia’s structure between the military and economic forces; the label attached to the Soviet Union of being a giant with two legs, one powerful (military) and the other weak (economy), also applies to the Russian Federation.

Which brings us to American historian Paul Kennedy’s equation regarding the rise and fall of great powers: a strong economy that finances an army deployed abroad and a lack of financial ability to spend on overseas military operations both put great powers on the path towards failure. The continuation of the Russian-Western conflict and Moscow’s military involvement in Ukraine and Syria, as well as the possibility of its involvement in Iraq, will lead to the exhaustion of Russia’s money supply and push it to the brink of bankruptcy.

This worries Russian citizens and has widened the gap between them and their leadership. The situation does not align with the doctrine and principles of the populist government and its sole hero Vladimir Putin, which depends on the enthusiasm of the Russian people and their ardent nationalism in order to mobilise behind him and protect him from their anger. He does so by promoting his description of the situation that the Russians have found themselves in as part of a Western conspiracy.

The Russian military intervention in Syria is based on opportunities and risks. Such opportunities include reinforcing Russia’s influence, limiting Washington’s ability to take unilateral action in the Middle East and other parts of the world, and forcing the US to negotiate with Moscow on regional and international issues, thus recognising Russia as an equal partner in global decision-making. However, it involves greater risks, as Washington does not accept Moscow as an equal or an influential player in the international arena. Indeed, it treats it like a junior partner there to serve the interests of the stronger party, according to the intersection theory spoken about by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former US National Security Advisor in his book Between Two Ages: America’s Role in the Technetronic Era.

Many analyses have predicted that domestic criticism will increase when soldiers start going home from Syria in body bags. Despite the fact that Russia is relying on air strikes to wear down the opposition in preparation for a ground attack by the Assad regime, its Iranian allies and the militias associated with Iran, in order to regain control of the territories lost in recent months and keep the opposition forces away from the coast, where the Russian naval base is located, this tactic is facing many obstacles. The first of these is the lack of effectiveness of the air strike in achieving decisive results in the asymmetric war. Another obstacle is the fact that Russia is linked to a weak ally — the regime — making it more difficult and placing a heavy burden on Moscow.

If the Syrian opposition forces succeed in avoiding Russia’s air strikes, and containing them, and then respond with powerful blows to the regime and its allies, they would have stopped the “tsar” from achieving quick results, such as reinforcing the regime’s position and pressuring the West to accept a trade-off. They would have a tactical victory in light of the unbalanced nature of the conflict and in accordance with the rule that, “The army is defeated when it is not victorious, while the resistance is victorious when it is not defeated.”

This could put the Russian leadership in a confrontation with public opinion at home, which is still suffering from Afghanistan syndrome; the people have a deep-seated fear of slipping in a foreign war.

Pushing Russia to withdraw from Syria without any positive results will reflect negatively on the “heroic” image of Putin and will lead to a decline in Moscow’s international role. That would push it back and force it to accept Washington’s conditions for a resolution of the crisis in Syria, the first of which is a new leadership in Damascus.

Russia’s involvement in such a war as Syria’s involves great risks for a country that is suffering from economic problems and is on the verge of bankruptcy, unable to pay its debts. Add to that the fact that it is suffering from social problems and existential concerns due to the demographic and religious structure of society, in order to achieve a near-impossible goal — a return to a world of bipolarity — and it is clear that Russia is reflecting a number of disparities in its strategic outlook.

Translated from Al Jazeera net, 4 November, 2015.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.