In his geopolitical judo match with the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been scoring points lately. A year ago, who would think that his one-time nemesis, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a key NATO member, would apologize for downing a Russian warplane near the Syrian border? Who would expect Erdogan to call on him at the Kremlin, hat in hand, for economic and political support?
This is no longer the Erdogan who vehemently denounced the Russian adventure in the Syrian battle theatre. Putin had entered the fray not so much to smash the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) but to prop the sagging fortunes of his bloodstained ally, Syrian strongman Bashir al-Assad, who is an abomination to Erdogan.
Today’s Erdogan is the survivor of a recent coup attempt and now he is waging a brutal and sweeping purge of the Turkish military, the police, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the academia and the media — to the consternation of human rights-conscious Western governments and the United Nations. For support for his draconian methods, he has turned to Putin, who is now making the most of Erdogan’s contrition.
Putin’s streak of good luck began in August 2013 when US President Obama dithered on what to do with Assad, as the latter was caught using chemical weapons against Syrian rebels. A year earlier, Obama had drawn a “red line,” proclaiming dire consequences on Assad if he dared use chemical weapons; the red line had been crossed but Obama was loath to do anything that would draw the US deep into the Syrian civil war. Yet something had to be done, or the US would lose face. Russia proposed a compromise: Assad would give up all of his chemical weapons. Everybody agreed and Putin’s global stock skyrocketed.
Now he is about to get into a deal with the US to coordinate military operations against the Jabhat al-Nusra, self-renamed Jabhat al-Fatah al-Sham but still regarded as the Syrian franchise of Al-Qaeda. This deal will further legitimize Russian involvement in the Syrian civil war.
To think that this is happening while Russian cyber hackers are suspected of trying to help Donald Trump, an unabashed Putin worshipper, defeat Hillary Clinton, Putin’s sworn enemy, in the US presidential elections! Without his asking for it, US media have lionized him as a key player in the rough and tumble of American politics.
Even the Brexit vote has proven to be heaven’s gift to Putin. A European Union (EU) weakened by the departure of the United Kingdom is wont to be less severe in hitting Russia with sanctions over its annexation of Crimea and its Ukrainian caper. A diminished EU may not be so coherent in its response to Putin’s saber rattling at the de facto border between the Russian-annexed, heavily militarized Crimean Peninsula and the Ukrainian mainland.
A few days ago, Russian forces claimed they had repulsed a Ukrainian terrorist attack on Crimea, raising anxieties that Putin was fabricating a pretext for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine using troops and heavy weaponry already massed at the border. Most experts believe, however, that Putin is just propagating a fear of Russian invasion as leverage in future international negotiations over Ukraine. But in the hearts of the peoples of Ukraine and Eastern Europe he has succeeded in sowing fear.
Closer to home, who would have thought that Putin would be a major beneficiary of the ruling by the international tribunal that put the lie to China’s hyperbolic claim to the South China Sea? For many months, which must have been an eternity to Chinese leaders, Russia made no statement on the controversy — for or against the Chinese position.
In some circles, Putin’s silence was misread as a way of Russia taking sides with Vietnam, an old ally, and the Philippines against China. A China-based journalist, Mu Chunshan, has pointed out that China and Russia may have a relationship that has “some characteristics of a comprehensive strategic partnership,” but they are not allies. Neither has a treaty obligation to come to the other’s aid in case of war. Mu also cited longstanding Russian fears of Chinese expansionism.
At least one Philippine publication instantly jumped on Mu’s careful, non-committal analysis and over-interpreted it to mean that when push came to shove, Russia would side with Vietnam and the Philippines against China. That was wishful thinking.
Not long after the international tribunal laid down its ruling, Beijing triumphantly announced that China and Russia would be holding naval exercises in the South China Sea in September. China brandished the agreement as proof beyond doubt that Russia was on its side of the controversy.
Apparently the agreement was hastily reached in response to the ruling at China’s urgent behest. In the end it is just another naval exercise, an act of military showmanship, but China badly needs one that involves Russia at this time.
Why did it take Putin so long to come out on the side of China? Because Putin loves to see people twist in the wind. Thus even today Erdogan is twisting in the wind, not sure whether Putin has really reconciled with him and has forgotten about the downed Sukhoi. I have news for Erdogan: Putin has a long memory.
As to China, Putin knows very well that China needs him more than he needs China in the new Cold War between the global East and West. You can imagine him sitting smugly in the Kremlin smiling to himself over the thought that at any time he wishes, he can to a great extent help China become undisputed emperor of the South China Sea, in spite of the US Navy.
He can do this by selling to China his cutting edge sea-based cruise missiles, but he is not doing that yet—because that will be his leverage if he needs to negotiate a grand deal with the US.
Meanwhile, he sells to India first generation weapon systems more sophisticated than those he is selling to China. Clever geopolitician, this Vladimir Putin.