Opinion | Putin has reason to be pleased with the state of the world

Russian president Vladimir Putin. (Photo: Reuters)
Russian president Vladimir Putin. (Photo: Reuters)

He has an equation with Trump, an “intimate” friendship with Jinping and has a proxy in Nato

On 20 December, the day after US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of all American troops from civil-war-torn Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed Trump’s decision as “correct". It was clearly a victory for Russia, which has been trying to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power, while the US has been supporting the anti-Assad rebels.

It was all going according to Putin’s master plan. The former KGB agent from the Cold War era hates the US and the West. He wants Russia to regain the superpower status that it enjoyed as the Soviet Union. And over the last few years, he has systematically and brutally advanced Russia’s cause.

As special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections draws to a close, there is more and more damaging information being revealed about the connections between Trump, his business organizations and associates, and the Russian government. It is now clear that even as Trump was on the campaign trail, his executives were negotiating with Moscow for clearances to build an ultra-plush Trump Tower in the Russian capital. There are even reports The Trump Organization offered Putin a $50-million penthouse as a gift.

So alarmed was the Federal Bureau of Investigation that it even started a top-secret investigation into whether Trump was a Russian “asset"—a man working for Russia rather than the US.

Trump’s meetings with Putin have been bizarre. The first time, in July 2017, Trump took his interpreter’s notes away and ordered him not to disclose what he heard to anyone. Later that night, at a dinner, Trump pulled up a seat next to Putin to talk without any American witnesses.

At a formal summit in Helsinki, the two leaders spoke for two hours with only interpreters present. Trump never revealed what they spoke about, except that he believed Putin when he said he had not tampered with the US elections. In December, at the G20 meeting at Buenos Aires, Trump met Putin informally. No one seems to know what they discussed. Has Donald Trump made the US presidency a potential victim of kompromat (blackmail)?

Meanwhile, China and Russia are close allies today. In fact, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin have publicly proclaimed themselves to be BFFs. Last year, Putin told a Chinese radio station: “I’ve never established such relations…with any foreign colleague, but I did it with President Xi." The Russian and Chinese presidents have spent more time with each other than either has with any other foreign leader and, in June last year, Jinping presented Putin with China’s first “friendship medal"—a gold necklace—and called him “my best, most intimate friend". Realpolitik as bromance.

Moscow and Beijing need each other. China wants Russian oil and gas. Russia needs Chinese trade and investment. And they both share a loathing of Islamist radicalism in Central Asia and resent US global dominance. For Russia, a prime objective also is to weaken North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato), which has been creeping closer and closer to Russian borders over the years, by making more and more eastern European countries its members.

Things came to a head in 2008 when Ukraine’s membership came up for discussion at a Nato summit. The vast plains of Ukraine are the buffer between Russia and the rest of Europe—the troops of Napoleon and Hitler had to cross these plains to invade Russia, and meet their doom. According to one report, Putin personally spoke to the then president George W. Bush and told him that if “Ukraine was accepted into Nato, it would cease to exist".

In February 2014, the pro-Russia Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was deposed in a popular uprising and a pro-US government came to power. Within days, Russia had annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Putin then made clear to the Ukrainian government that he would wreck Ukraine as a functioning society before allowing a Western stronghold to exist on Russia’s doorstep. He has since then launched crippling cyberattacks on the country, cut off its gas supplies once, and supported Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine with arms and covert troops. Eastern Ukraine remains in a state of civil war. Thousands have been killed. The West watches impotently.

In West Asia, if the US backs off from Syria, Russia will be in a position of strength in the region. Putin has also been putting relentless pressure on Turkey, the other country supporting the anti-Assad forces, to step back. And Turkey seems to be obliging. It does not want to get into a confrontation with Putin. Last year, it agreed to buy $400-million worth of air defence missiles from Russia.

And, Turkey is a member of Nato. The country’s asymmetric dependence on Russia could turn this Nato member into a Russian proxy. This is just the leverage Putin wants in Russia’s global contest with the US and Nato.

Thus, with some sort of strange equation with the US President, an “intimate" friendship with the Chinese President, a proxy in Nato (which he has already stared down over Ukraine) and growing influence in West Asia, Putin is exactly where he wants to be: building global Russian power.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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