A few days ago Michael Fallon, the UK Secretary of Defence, said that “Putin’s Russia is a threat to Europe as great as the Islamic State”. These words underscore a situation of conflict that the Ukrainian crisis and its consequences have sharpened. Anyhow, it seems that Putin’s Russia is showing a renovated geopolitical activism. Is the Russian Federation trying to regain the worldwide leadership it lost after the end of communism?

1/Russia’s Moves. The Ukrainian Field

The withdrawal of Kiev troops from Debaltsevo seems to adhere to Minsk agreements, which include the end of the fightings and the retreat of on-field forces. But some problems still remain unsolved. The truce made by Putin, Hollande, Merkel and Poroshenko on the 12th of February has two implicit purposes. First, it requires a change in Kiev’s Constitution that makes clear the differences between the West and the filo-Russian East. Secondly, it entrusts the garrison of the Russian Border to Ukrainian troops, at least until the constitutional reform.

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Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel
Photo credits: CC BY 3.0

This two political purposes, deliberately non specified, have been defeated by mutual vetoes by Kiev and Moscow, respectively to the constitutional reform and to the border’s garrison. According to analysts, the Kremlin did not despise this situation. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is struggling with economic reforms which the International Monetary Found requested in order to grant its aid. If Kiev will succeed in reforms, Ukraina will draw near to the Western states, while the zones of  Donetsk and Lugansk will draw nearer to Russia. Others even think that Putin is betting on Ukrainian reforms’ failure, hoping this possibility will approach Kiev to the Kremlin.

2/ Russia’s Moves. Towards East

According to Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Center of Moscow, Russia has a different plan for Ukraina. Putin seems to have resigned the project of Kiev as the “European side” of the Eurasian Economic Union. Trenin says that  “the idea of a ‘greater Europe from Dublin to Vladivostok’ […] is being replaced by the reality of increasing proximity to China and the rise of what can be called ‘a greater Asia from Shanghai to St Petersburg‘ “. European sanctions, then, convinced Russia to turn his eyes to the East.

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Putin on the Cover of The Economist
Photo credits: The Economist

But the “Kremlin’s great puppeteer”, as depicted in a late cover of The Economist,  has plenty of options. To cite an example, Putin always rejected the idea of a direct military intervention against the Syrian President Bashar el-Assad. Russia wanted to protect the seat of his only naval base in the Mediterranean Sea, Tartus, but his move was farsighted. Indeed Syria is playing an important role in the international coalition against IS, with great embarassment of USA.
Therefore, the so-called new “Tsar” of Russia seems to have renounced to the collaborative approach with the West he held for years. Observers rather notice a revival of Cold War concepts such as “spheres of influences” or “strategic contrast”. Putin’s attendance at Brics and SCO meetings could be read in this key. “Thanks to China’s economy and financial might, and Russia’s international experience, these clubs could become serious organisations capable of providing measures of financial and political leadership”.
But Russia’s diplomatic network is not limited to the Eastern area. Lately, the relationships with Turkey, where a gas pipeline will be built to replace the failed South Stream project, has been strengthened. A new course was chartered also with Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Some analysts, however, pointed out that the drop of the oil’s price, decided by Riyad, was agreed with USA in order to hit the Russian economy.

3/ Russia’s Moves. “Divide Et Impera”

Whoever sees a new Cold War approaching says that the Kremlin’s hands reach also to the European states. Economic sanctions, which are weakening the Russian market, need a unanimous convergence of the 28 States members of EU. Vladimir Putin wants to break trough the wall of opposition using a particular picklock: Greece. As soon as the elections enshrined the victory of Alexis Tsipras, Russia offered help to the Hellenic republic, in the event that the tug-of-war with the so-called Troika will stop IMF’s subsidies. Both Syriza and Anel, majority parties of the Boulè [Greek Parliament], are on the side of Russia. Several times, in dealing with Europe,  Tsipras has implied that his government is still not indifferent to Russian offers.
Also the Hungarian conservative Viktor Orban, accused of authoritarian drifts, plays an important role in this game. Recently Orban supported the idea that his country has to find its own way to illiberal democracy. The President indicated Russia as an example, causing irritation in European chancelleries. Istvan Gyarmati, head of the International Center for Democratic Transition, attempts to clarify Viktor Orban’s words. “Orban spoke of non-liberal model, not of illiberal model, such as spread by the media. Perhaps he would say that economic progress did not come automatically with democracy. Anyhow, until proven otherwise, Ukraine is a democracy, Russia is not.”
Many experts did not agree with Gyarmati and considered Orban’s late moves as an attempt to emulate Putin. The Russian President has recently visited Budapest in order to strengthen the diplomatic relationships with Hungary. As a matter of fact after the South Stream’s project fiasco, the Central European State will accommodate a storage center of Russian gas. Previously, the Hungarian President had also criticised EU sanctions against Russia, but it is difficult to consider Budapest a bridgehead of the Kremlin in Europe. Hungary has not the political force to use his decisive veto against sanctions supported by Germany, the biggest investor and commercial partner of Orban’s State. “It has been years that Moscow has been trying to divide the European States in order to dilute their strategical power. None of the courted countries, including Ukraine, has yet abandoned the Nato alliance.  Economic sanctions against Russia are the evidence. Orban probably can complain about them, but he has voted them, and his country holds Nato forces.”, concluded Gyarmati.

4/Russia’s Moves. Washington’s Look Towards Moscow

According to many analysts, Vladimir Putin is playing his chess game with the Western world in an unconventional but efficacious way. He actually recovered Crimea, that was a 1954 gift to Ukraina from former URSS leader Nikita Kruschev. He is also going to recover the Donbass area. But this expensive Weltmachtpolitik risks to burn Russian declining resources and wear out a still-Soviet army. Nevertheless, Putin knows that a war against him, now, is not a viable option. He has an unpredictable ace in the hole: the strange cooperation with the United States. 

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The Unbreakable Ties Between Putin and Obama
Photo credit: AZRainman / Foter / CC BY

Washington wants to help Kiev with military fornitures but is aware of the indispensable role of Russia in the international alliance against IS. Putin can ensure an efficacious naval blockade in the Mediterranean Sea, even if with an old fleet. U.S. Navy is deployed in the Pacific Sea, checking China’s moves, and is not prepared for small-size surveillance operations. Putin will accomplish this duty in order to strengthen the presence of Russian ships in the Mediterranean Sea. Russia, however, is a natural gateway to many Islamic countries. Obama has no interest to weaken too much a State that can become a strategical ally in the fight against terrorism.
This theory seems to be confirmed by the convergence of the two States on the Egyptian proposal for an international mission in Libya. Washington also supported Moscow’s resolution to blocking financial and military channels through which Daesh feeds himself. This collaboration between Washington and Moscow seems to withstand, at least until the Bear will roar again.

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