Moscow’s bombings in Syria, coupled with Vladimir Putin’s railing against the U.S. at the United Nations General Assembly last week, have thrust the Russian president into the global spotlight and rejuvenated debate over the extent to which he is an evil geopolitical genius, a strategically brilliant hustler — or some combination of both.
What is clear is that Mr. Putin shows no sign of relinquishing the power he has held in Moscow for 16 years, during which he has established himself as a kind of 21st-century Russian czar bent on pursuing an increasingly militarized and adventurous foreign policy.
Russia’s military has planted flags on the Arctic floor, fought wars in Ukraine and Georgia, and engaged in ever-widening military drills with China — all while Mr. Putin has pursued a provocative posture in the Middle East by signing weapons and nuclear technology deals with Iran, and now deploying troops and fighter jets to Syria.
The question on everyone’s mind is whether the Russian president is punching above his weight class — a good question because no one except for Mr. Putin himself and a small circle of powerful backers in Moscow disputes that Russia’s economy is teetering beneath the burden of Western economic sanctions and anemic global oil prices.
Russia’s incursion into Syria has prompted some to wonder whether Mr. Putin’s unspoken goal is to foster a full-blown war between Iran and Saudi Arabia that would trigger a resurgence of global oil prices. Such a rise could return the Russian economy to prominence and secure Mr. Putin’s seat at the helm for many years to come.
Analysts say there is no question Mr. Putin is bent on projecting every ounce of Russian power at his disposal. By seizing the moment of passivity from much more powerful players — namely the U.S. and its Western European allies — he is making Russia appear stronger than it actually is.
“What Putin is doing is playing a very tough and aggressive game with a weak hand, and what we are doing is playing a weak and passive game with a very strong hand,” said Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “In the long run, what he is trying to do is to get a second-rate power a first-rate strategic position in the world.”
“Putin is not gunning for a Nobel Peace Prize,” said Patrick Cronin at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “But his simple ambition and use of brute force trump the Obama administration’s high-mindedness and irresolution.”
Put another way, Mr. Cronin said, the Russian leader is “improvising without scruples.”
“He is not spoiling for a fight with the United States, but he does not respect our power because he thinks we won’t use it,” Mr. Cronin said.
That may explain Mr. Putin’s adventurism in Ukraine. While Russia has appeared to ease off from the conflict during recent weeks, it is difficult to frame the development as a defeat for Mr. Putin. Not only did Moscow succeed in annexing the Crimean Peninsula, but the Russian president also effectively established a cold war with the weaker, Western-backed government in Kiev.
More important, the West’s increase of NATO’s presence in the region over the past year gave cover for Mr. Putin to engage in massive military posturing of his own. Some 90,000 Russian forces engaged in coordinated exercises spreading from the Arctic to the Black Sea in March — maneuvers that seemed aimed at dwarfing Washington’s exercises at the time, which featured a convoy of some 500 U.S. troops driving roughly 1,000 miles across six Eastern European nations.
Mr. Putin has since appeared eager to show that such large-scale maneuvering is not only the new normal, but it also extends well beyond Eastern Europe.
In August, for instance, the Russian and Chinese navies conducted their largest-ever joint exercises, with dozens of ships and amphibious vehicles engaging in anti-submarine operations and a joint beach landing.
The reach of Russia’s navy is something Mr. Putin has long sought to show the world — even planting flags on the potentially oil- and gas-rich Arctic floor. Since 2007, Moscow also has ramped up construction of its nuclear icebreakers, and refurbished its port and military facilities in the region.
In the shadow of U.S.-driven nuclear negotiations with the Islamic republic last year, Moscow announced a deal to build at least two nuclear power plants for Iran. More recently, Mr. Putin gave the green light to a long-stalled $800 million deal to deliver an advanced anti-missile rocket system to Tehran.
Mr. Putin’s goal may simply be trying to make money for Russia however he can. But analysts say his actions also hinge on a yearning to poke a geopolitical finger in the West’s eye whenever the opportunity arises — if only to show that Russia is a power that does what it wants, when it wants, with whomever it wants.
In addition to calling on the world to counter U.S. dominance during his U.N. speech last week, Mr. Putin reiterated his view — during an interview with Charlie Rose on CBS’ “60 Minutes” — that “the collapse of the USSR was a huge tragedy of the 20th century.”
“Putin is first and foremost a KGB colonel who was raised to distrust and dislike America. He worked in human intelligence, an art that Americans don’t like to practice, and in human intelligence, you assess the human asset,” he said, adding that Mr. Putin has clearly assessed that “he is tougher, meaner and staying for much longer” than Barack Obama and other Western leaders.
“Mr. Putin and his cronies, many of whom are former KGB colonels and generals, are now here to have payback — payback for what they perceive as humiliation over the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Mr. Cohen said.
With the nation’s state-controlled energy monopolies presently deprived of once record-level revenue, dozens of massive Russian companies have become mired in a debt crisis that threatens to drain Moscow of precious currency reserves.
Mr. Putin has faced internal criticism for attempting to steer attention from such realities with muscle-flexing and nationalism. But analysts say there is no escaping the economic crisis.
A significant number of the Russian companies are scrambling under U.S. and European Union economic sanctions imposed as punishment for Moscow’s meddling in Ukraine — sanctions that have prevented those companies from refinancing massive debts with Western lenders.
That does not bode well for Mr. Putin.
“Putin cannot jerry-rig the Soviet empire back together with machismo and duct tape,” said Mr. Cronin. “He will soon find himself overextended and out of options, with few reserves left in his failing economy.”
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