It has been a very good summer for Russian President Vladimir Putin, at least as far as foreign policy is concerned. His own efforts in a variety of endeavors have paid dividends and unrelated developments have benefited Russia and Putin’s agenda. Putin is exploiting those gains — along with a reputation for subtle maneuvering and bold assertiveness — to claim additional advantages. It is not clear if Putin understands the limits of Russian power or Western patience. A miscalculation of either could prove disastrous.
One of the most important developments is the rapprochement with Turkey that followed a year of tense ties. In November 2015, a Turkish fighter jet shot down a Russian bomber that flew into Turkish airspace while bombing rebels in support of the Syrian government. Russia retaliated by suspending its tourist trade with Turkey, a blow to a Turkish economy already battered by terrorism and growing uncertainty about the nation’s political future. In June, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent a letter to Putin purportedly apologizing for the shoot down and relations have been rebounding ever since. The reconciliation process culminated in an Aug. 9 meeting between the two presidents, the first in over a year.
This improvement occurs as Turkey’s relations with the West deteriorate, mostly as a result of Erdogan’s consolidation of power and an authoritarianism that could threaten Turkey’s democracy. Turkey has long been a target of Russia’s diplomacy as a result of its location straddling the Bosphorus, and the access it provides to the Mediterranean Sea. Its position between Europe and the Middle East has elevated Turkey’s importance to Europe and NATO. By most geopolitical calculations, the West’s loss is Russia’s gain.
In a related development, the Syrian government is regaining the offensive in the bloody civil war in that country. Russia is Damascus’ key ally in the Middle East and as the tide shifts to favor the Syrian government, Russian influence in the region increases as well. That momentum change shapes Erdogan’s thinking too: Support for the rebels seems increasingly fruitless and shifting to back Syrian President Bashar Assad is a way to cut his losses, which makes Syria and Russia stronger still.
Putin is also delighted by the British vote to leave the European Union. Britain’s departure weakens the EU, forcing the union to concentrate its energies on dealing with the messy process of departure as well as ensuring that there are no other defections. In other words, Europe will focus inward, and will not welcome a spat with Russia nor be able to muster a strong stand against Moscow. That mentality will be equally compelling in London, and as its economy shrinks in response to Brexit, the British government will be looking for alternative sources of stimulus. This should weaken British resolve to tighten sanctions against Russia and may even encourage London to weaken the ones already in place.
Across the Atlantic, Putin is delighting in the success of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Even without crediting the paranoid conspiracy theories that argue the Trump is in the pocket of Russian interests, Trump is damaging the United States. His statements have given U.S. allies reasons to question the durability of Washington’s commitment to their defense. His daily gaffes are a blot on U.S. democracy, forcing many observers to wonder what is at work in the politics of the leading nation of the West. His support for strongman rule, and comments that applaud Putin’s authoritarianism suggest that such behavior is within the norm and not a departure from democratic principles that the U.S. and its partners have traditionally endorsed.
Putin’s horizons are not unclouded. The economy continues to struggle with the impact of the downturn of energy prices, which has been magnified by the sanctions imposed by the West in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea and the fighting in Ukraine. Russia’s economy shrank 3.75 percent in 2015 and has declined for the first two quarters of 2016. The decision to ban many Russian athletes from the Olympic Games is another black eye, and denies Moscow many of the moments of glory that feed Putin’s nationalist, world-beating narrative.
Those setbacks have not much bothered Putin. Instead, he has been pushing an aggressive agenda, flexing Russian muscle to score geopolitical points. He has rattled his saber in Europe, warning against NATO efforts to protect member state against Moscow’s influence. His tough talk has been backed by a growing number of military provocations, from exercises to training flights, that have alarmed NATO governments and publics. Japan scrambled Air Self-Defense Forces jets 288 times against Russian incursions.
Now there are signs that an offensive against Ukraine may be in the works. Violence has risen in the Donbass, the eastern part of Ukraine that Russia seeks to separate from the rest of the state and claim as a satellite. Putin accused Ukraine of armed incursions into and plotting “terrorist” acts against Crimea. Russia has withdrawn from peace talks with France, Germany and Ukraine that yielded a flawed, but nevertheless important, ceasefire. Some consider this to be posturing as Russia prepares for parliamentary elections to be held next month. Putin could be misreading Western resolve, however, and is prepared to press his advantage with Europe divided and the U.S. preoccupied by an election campaign. The West must be united and resolute in what is sure to be a testing fall.
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