United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, which laid out the map of a peace process in Syria, crowns a year of risky gambles for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Most of these played out badly for ordinary Russians, but Putin himself appears to have improved his international standing after an ugly 2014, carving out a clear — though not necessarily enviable — new role for Russia in world affairs.
In 2014, Putin became a near-pariah. After Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, the leaders of what used to be the Group of Eight decided to cancel a meeting in Sochi and agreed to hit Russia with weak but humiliating economic sanctions. The U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution stating the annexation was illegal, and only 10 countries — including North Korea, Zimbabwe, Venezuela and Sudan — backed Russia by voting against it. China and India abstained, though, and Putin decided he could pivot toward his partners in Asia, demonstrating that “the West” and “the world” are not synonyms.
Russia also signed some long-term energy deals with China in 2014, but they fell short of forming a solid anti-Western alliance. The crash of a Malaysian plane in eastern Ukraine, apparently shot down by Moscow-backed rebels, made things worse. A Moscow-approved Ukraine cease-fire didn’t work. At a Group of 20 summit in Australia in November, other world leaders shunned or snubbed Putin, who had ordered Russian warships to approach Australian shores ahead of the meeting, and he left early.
Putin wanted his views and interests to be heeded. Instead, he got contempt and a measure of fear, a combination that wasn’t much better than disregard. So in 2015, he set out to improve his global standing with a series of bold moves.
Minsk cease-fire: neutral
In February, marathon talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, brokered by the leaders of France and Germany, ended in a peace deal that, from the outset, looked hard to implement. Apart from a military cease-fire, the parties promised political moves they couldn’t deliver: Ukraine said it would grant rebel-held areas a special status, and in return, Russia agreed to hand back control of Ukraine’s eastern border. Both would prove unpopular domestically, and neither has happened, so the Minsk agreement is being extended into next year.
On balance, this setup was neither a victory nor a defeat for Putin.
On the minus side, he continues to deal with the West’s sanctions. The European Union has recently decided to extend them, and Putin’s attempts to undermine them from within the European Union have failed. Even the cocky first government of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras apparently asked too high a price for disrupting the sanctions, and the EU’s far-right parties that have become allied with Moscow, such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, have failed to gain much electoral traction. Putin has also failed to prevent Ukraine from establishing closer ties with the EU: A year of desultory negotiations on amending the country’s trade and association deal to account for Russian concerns have led nowhere. Besides, the European Commission recently recommended that the EU scrap visas for Ukrainians, something Putin himself once wanted for Russia but failed to secure.
On the plus side for Putin, Ukraine is far from stable. An inept, corrupt political establishment has botched reforms and become deeply unpopular, and the semi-frozen conflict has not made things easier for them. If there are political upheavals next year, any outcome will suit Putin: For him, the worse things are, the better. Thus, the introduction of a food embargo and the scrapping of preferential trade terms with Ukraine from Jan. 1, as well as a vindictive desire to go to court over a $3 billion debt on which Ukraine recently defaulted with the International Monetary Fund’s consent. Neither will achieve much immediately, but Putin can still hope that his attempts to undermine the Ukrainian authorities will someday bear fruit and provide him with more convenient negotiating partners in Kiev.
Something else the Minsk negotiations achieved was closer and more productive contact with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande. Both are now stakeholders in the Ukraine peace process, and they get irritated when Kiev threatens to derail it. To both, Putin is no longer a pariah: One can do business with him. Merkel defended the construction of a Russian natural gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2, into Germany against criticism from Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who says the project contradicts the sanctions policy. Meanwhile, Hollande is the Western leader most eager to cooperate with Russia in Syria.
Energy as a tool of political influence: minus
Russia’s pre-Crimea foreign policy was all about projecting the country’s energy power. That turned out badly. In May, Putin was forced to scrap the South Stream pipeline to Europe due to EU resistance. His Plan B — turning the pipeline toward Turkey — also fell apart, probably even before Turkey shot down a Russian plane near the Syrian-Turkish border. China may need far less Russian gas than Russia would like to deliver under their 2014 deal. Russia’s natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, is sitting on too many shaky, overly expensive pipeline projects that nobody seems to need, and Russia’s competitors in the Middle East are eager to use Europe’s desire for more energy independence from Moscow. Even Ukraine turned out to need much less Russian gas than it bought before, both because of its economic troubles and because much of the previous supplies turned out to be part of corrupt schemes run by Ukrainian oligarchs.
Losing his energy-based leverage must have been unsettling for Putin. He had little choice but to play to Russia’s only remaining strength: its military might, the increase of which over the past decade came as a surprise to many Russia-watchers who’d assumed the bigger defense budgets were being squandered or stolen. As Putin said at a recent news conference, one of the reasons Russia moved into Syria was to hold a real-life training exercise.
The Syrian adventure: plus
The demonstration of military strength has been a success. Observers have been impressed by such feats as a cruise missile launch from the Caspian Sea to hit targets more than 1,000 miles away, and there have been few Russian casualties. On the minus side, the army of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has proved less useful than Moscow appears to have expected. Even with the help of Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, Syrian troops have failed to make decisive progress on the ground. If they had taken Aleppo, once Syria’s biggest city, Putin could have dictated peace terms. As it is, he can only compromise with the U.S. and its allies, agreeing to negotiations between Assad and the moderate opposition that may end in the formation of a government hostile to Putin, an old Assad ally.
That uneasy compromise, however, is mostly a success for Putin. The U.S. now accepts that he’s playing a constructive role in Syria, and the Security Council resolution is unambiguously the product of a joint effort. There’s still plenty of mutual distrust, but Putin wouldn’t want it any other way. As former diplomat Alexander Baunov wrote for the Moscow Carnegie Center:
The goal was to return to the company where the destiny of the world is being discussed, not as an ally (because given the current economic disparity, one could only be a junior, subordinate ally) but as a ‘partner’ — a word that is invariably spoken in Russia with phonetic quotation marks: A disobedient, sometimes blunt neighbor with whom considerations of the world order must be shared.
Overall performance: neutral
To ordinary people, the fruit of Putin’s foreign policy is bitter. Russians feel increasingly sealed in, both by a week ruble and by bans on vacations in Egypt and Turkey, as well as the cancellation of all direct flights between Russia and Ukraine. The three countries used to be Russia’s three most popular destinations before Putin’s muscular policies made them unsafe or hostile. Imported delicacies such as European cheeses and meats are still banned under Putin’s food embargo against the EU, and starting next year, Ukrainian food, too, will be off-limits. All that Russians have gotten from Putin’s international activity is a boost to their pride, delivered by the Kremlin’s propaganda channels — not a tangible benefit as the economy continues to buckle under the weight of falling commodity prices.
A bird’s-eye view, though, is more favorable to Putin. His saber rattling and his willingness to talk and compromise have again made him a player to be reckoned with, and he is no longer being shunned: Even U.S. President Barack Obama, who makes no secret of his personal dislike of Putin, finds it necessary to hold regular meetings with him. The Russian leader has carved out an uncomfortable but far from insignificant niche for Russia in the global political landscape. The country’s role is disproportionate to its shrinking economic power, and, arguably, it is sometimes more constructive than it was in better days for the Russian-Western relationship: Back then, there was less give-and-take on Syria, for example.
Putin’s gambles could still go bad next year. A collapse of the Minsk plan could lead to more violence in Ukraine and harsher sanctions. In Syria, the settlement talks could lead to a humiliating outcome for Russia, or they could go nowhere at all. Increasing economic pain and further disruption in the energy industry could undercut Russia’s military power and the negotiating clout that comes with it. Though Putin is being dealt in again, the stack of chips before him looks too thin for his style of play.
That’s better than being excluded from the game altogether. Putin’s renewed engagement with the West is in Russia’s interest, not just Putin’s: Once he’s gone, it’ll only be necessary to improve the relationship, not to rebuild it completely.
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