Commentary / World

Putin is more dangerous than ever

by James Stavridis

Bloomberg

With a surprise announcement in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin this past week laid down the path allowing him to wield power well past his nominal term limit of 2024. This led quickly to the resignations of the long-suffering prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev, and the entire Cabinet. Now an advisory board will suggest changes to the constitution that will almost certainly weaken whomever follows Putin as president and strengthen the office of prime minister.

It doesn’t take a Machiavelli to see what’s going on politically: easing into the power-enhanced role of prime minister when his presidential term expires is but one way Putin could now extend his reign. It will be the culmination of what people who plan strategically against Russia have predicted for years: Putin will be the czar of all the Russians for another decade and more. Only health appears likely to change the course upon which he now sails.

The questions for the United States and its global allies are clear: What does this mean for Russian grand strategy? How can they construct a modus vivendi with Putin and Russia?

Much like President Xi Jinping in China, Putin will now be able to shape events and planning indefinitely. This will mean many of his personal priorities will continue to drive Russian policy.

One has been his penchant for putting very serious pressure on weak neighbors, trying to recreate the group of buffer states (what Russians call the “near abroad”) that the Soviet Union enjoyed in the Warsaw Pact countries. Countries such as Ukraine and Georgia (both now invaded and partly occupied by Russian troops); Belarus; the “stans” of Central Asia; and Armenia will feel long-term pressure to join Russian-led customs arrangements, and receive political pressure to align themselves with Putin’s political and diplomatic moves.

Look also for Putin to consolidate his recent gains in the Middle East. With the advantage of a lengthened timeline, he will probably approach Iran with an offer to mediate its feud with the West — on terms that will be helpful to Russia in terms of oil flows. Knowing he needs cash to keep the increasingly restive Russian population appeased, he will be unlikely to take responsibility for reconstruction of Syria, to the disappointment of his erstwhile ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad. Instead, expect him to work on Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman to find the money to do so. His new timeline allows him to work closely with the next generation of Gulf leaders and Iran.

Of most concern to the West, he and Xi can now deepen their already tight relationship with the advantage of a long, long runway. Militarily, China and Russia are cooperating as never before; consider, for example, their recent joint naval exercises from the Indian Ocean to the Baltic Sea to the Western Pacific.

The largest war games in post-Cold War history were held just over a year ago on the two nations’ shared Siberian border. They are clearly aligning policy on Iran and North Korea. While Russia may eventually come to rue the inevitable — ending as a junior partner to Beijing — for the time being, Putin’s power move makes him an even more attractive match for Xi.

Putin’s continuing desire to rip apart NATO by driving a diplomatic wedge between the U.S. and its allies will now have more traction. He will be able to strengthen commercial and intelligence ties with Turkey to pull it away from the NATO center of gravity. Russia will use social media as a weapon to undermine public confidence in the alliance, find seams and divisions between the allies, and convince the U.S. that the Europeans are not doing their share.

The move consolidates Putin’s strategy of making high-tech defense investments that are potentially the most damaging to the U.S. These include a new line of hypersonic cruise missiles designed to overcome any American missile defense system; silent submarines armed with nuclear-powered torpedoes; and a powerful array of cyberweapons that could attack the U.S. electric grid and financial networks.

We should recognize that Putin will face challenges like any other leader, and problems of his own making will likely amplify in overtime. For example, his apparent lack of an exit plan in Syria; inability to diversify his own economy away from oil-export dependence; his vast military buildup while angering his own people with pension cuts; the expectations of some of his allies on handouts from Russia; and the ongoing cost of the occupations of Georgia and Ukraine.

Still, U.S. leaders and policymakers must simply recognize Putin’s fait accompli and plan in terms of his perpetuity. Just like his pal Xi, Putin can engage in strategic planning looking decades ahead. When I was a strategic planner in the Pentagon as a junior rear admiral, we did high fives if we managed to construct strategic plan of just five years (which most often fell apart if the administration changed).

For Russia, there will still be a single hand on the tiller. While that will have many disadvantages — the most obvious is that it rejects democracy as a human value, an ethos that often leads to disaster, as in the Soviet Union — it creates a streamlined decision-making process that often allows long-term planning to succeed.

We in the West will need to recognize both Putin’s talents and his weaknesses as we think about global strategy. He is hardly our first choice as Russian leader, but as we say in North Florida, “sometimes you gotta be for what’s gonna happen anyway.”

Bloomberg Opinion columnist James Stavridis is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO.

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