Going Global: Russia struggles to make the best plays with the worst cards
Columns / September 1, 2016
After taking Crimea, addressing dissent in the Caucuses, and playing geopolitical chess with Turkey and Syria, it might appear that the Russian state is strong.
Turkey, which has squarely been an ally of the West and NATO for the last several decades, is becoming more and more anti-American, going so far as to blame the recent coup attempt on the U.S. And when you start to anger the West, it’s often a good time to turn to Russia.
However, Russia gets more out of this arrangement than Turkey does. Putin wants to see a destabilized NATO and a crumbling EU, which seems more and more likely considering the Brexit and the low support for NATO in Sweden and Finland.
While NATO can be seen as a player to help ensure the security of democracies, Russia is sort of a reverse NATO, used to ensure the security of fragile autocracies.
And yet, despite all of this, Russia is in decline, with a faltering economy facing a barrage of sanctions, low oil prices, and unhappy oligarchs. There’s also a brain drain, with many skilled and educated Russians immigrating to EU countries, as well as Canada and the United States. According to data from RosStat, 350,000 people emigrated from Russia in 2015, the highest departure rate following a sharp rise which began in 2011. Russia is simply too dependent on natural resources, and doesn’t have sufficient innovation.
Meanwhile, Putin is pinned by the situation in the Ukraine. Escalation of force would result in more sanctions and the ire of the international community, while retreat would hurt his legitimacy as a strong leader. Remember that Putin’s approval ratings have been high following successful military action, in addition to state manipulation of the local media. Of course, this is extremely unsustainable. With State Duma elections coming up on Sept. 18, Putin and his party, United Russia, need to consider popular opinion.
Additionally, the Ukraine situation is especially tense at the moment. On Aug. 23, Putin, Angela Merkel, and Francois Hollande had a conference call in an effort to reduce tensions. This is because Petro Poroshenko, the current President of the Ukraine, has warned that there’s a possibility of a “full scale Russian invasion along all fronts.”
Poroshenko has good reason to believe this, as Russia is moving military groups along the border. The U.S., however, believes that this is simply an annual Russian military exercise. Regardless, in geopolitics, capability is more alarming.
Russia continues to have interests in Syria, but the situation there is much more complicated. Both Russia and the United States want to see the civil war in Syria come to an end, but in different ways. Russia supports Assad and the Syrian government, but also the “Syrian Democratic Forces, while the U.S. supports the opposition. Despite these conflicting views, the United States has reached out to Russia in hopes of working together, but these talks have been stalled as of late.
Russia is in a weird position. While Putin is one of the strongest and most intelligent political and military leaders alive today, he has been dealt an extremely strange hand. Like his Soviet predecessors, he’s very good at statecraft, but struggles with a recessed, sanctioned economy experiencing a tough brain drain. While next month’s elections will likely result in a continuation of Putin’s rule, it’s hard to foresee a future with a Russian leader as capable as he is, despite the bad hand.