“Moscow has three main reasons for engagement in Syria: to demonstrate that Russia is a world power which must be taken seriously; to maintain Russia’s Mediterranean base and the possibility of imposing Area Denial on the West in the Eastern Mediterranean that it gives Russia; and to have leverage in places where Russia’s strategic concerns are more vitally engaged, such as Ukraine and the Baltic States”.
The New Geopolitics of Terror: Demons and Dragons (Routledge: January 2017)
William Hopkinson and Julian Lindley-French
Alphen, Netherlands. 30 December. Yet again Vladimir Vladimirovich has out-flanked his hapless American counterpart and in so doing has engineered the impression it is Washington not Moscow engaged in a new Cold War. The same day Putin played peacemaker in Syria outgoing US President Obama expelled 35 Russian ‘dips’ from the US, and imposed new sanctions on Putin’s inner-circle for Russia’s cyber-adjusting the recent US elections. So, how has Putin pulled it off and what can the West do about it?
Like many Western analysts I heard the news of the Russian ‘guaranteed’ nationwide ceasefire in Syria with deep ambivalence. The liberal democratic ‘me’ is relieved that there may just be a pause in the slaughter. However, the Realpolitik ‘me’ knows only too well that this strategic pause is but a hiatus in the grand strategic ambitions of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin as he takes stock on what has been a year of success beyond his wildest dreams.
Vladimir Vladimirovich has brilliantly exposed the wishful-thinking of Western elite establishments on both sides of the Atlantic. Remember a year ago (a long time ago, eh?) when politicians and establishment pundits were certain in their complacency. Brexit was the preserve of eccentric, nostalgic, English insurgents. Trump was an insult to prevailing political correctness who would not make it beyond the Republican primaries, let alone become president. And, Chancellor Merkel was busy telling her fellow Germans ‘wir schaffen das’, as the country reeled under the impact of over one million irregular migrants arriving en masse. Merkel should at least have read her history of Arminius, his defeat of the Roman Empire in the First Century BC, and Rome’s forced withdrawal from Magna Germania.
However, it is in Ukraine and the Levant where Vladimir Vladimirovich has most exposed the powerlessness and fecklessness of the West. Having changed Europe’s established borders by force in 2014 Putin has consolidated his hold on Crimea and Eastern Ukraine by entering into the charade that is Minsk I and Minsk II. If I were Ukrainian I suspect I would prefer to call it Munich I and Munich II. After all, saving Chancellor Merkel’s ‘peace in our time’ political face in an election year seems to be the only possible ‘benefit’ to have emerged from either agreement. There is clearly going to be no peace in or for Ukraine.
In Syria Vladimir Vladimirovich has thus far achieved almost all of his policy and strategy goals. He has humiliated the West (a goal in and of itself for Moscow) and in so doing gravely undermined American and European influence across the entire Middle East and North Africa. He has forced EU and NATO members to the east of the West to wonder if NATO these days is in fact Munich on steroids. He has also begun to exert real destabilising influence across much of southern Europe and brilliantly driven a wedge between Turkey and its NATO allies.
That he could achieve his aims reflects a strategy that in turn brilliantly combines a mix of force, deft diplomacy, and the sustained use of disinformation and destabilisation to create an image of a Russia of which he personifies which is far stronger than it actually is. However, make no mistake, Vladimir Vladimirovich could not have made 2016 his own without the active and complicit participation of the Obama administration and Europe’s strategically-illiterate leaders.
So, what can be done to stop Vladimir Vladimirovich, beyond the holding of yet another strategically-flatulent EU or NATO summit? Political realism is needed. 2017 is unlikely to be the year President Putin is confounded. President Trump will be in the White House in 19 days-time and seems more intent on buddying-up to Putin and teaching the ‘allies’ a lesson than containing the former or reinforcing the latter. Worse, Brexit and a deepening Eurozone debt crisis will again likely consume much of ‘Europe’s’ political energy during a 2017 when several key EU members will be engrossed in elections.
Firstly, the US and EU must endeavour to maintain sanctions (a big if) to curb Putin’s undoubted ambitions. Secondly, it will be vital to steadily strengthen the eastern NATO/EU border with a forward military presence that can act as a credible trip-wire and thus deterrent. Above all, Vladimir Vladimirovich must no longer be allowed an uncontested cyber and information space. In other words, Western powers must go on the cyber and information offensive against Russia. That act alone would finally send out the signal to Vladimir Vladimirovich that the West has got his combative message, and that if Russia continues to attack the many vulnerabilities of Western societies, the West will attack Russia’s many weaknesses.
The brilliance of Vladimir Vladimirovich’s strategic understanding is that he is a strong leader of an essentially weak state, attacking weak leaders of states that are essentially far stronger. but who are incapable of his ruthless grasp of power and strategy. In other words, Vladimir Vladimirovich may be brilliant, but he is also ultimately weak.
No, I do not like President Putin, but I do respect him. And, I must admit, I vaguely fear him. Which, after all, is the very objective he set out to achieve.
2016: the year of Vladimir Vladimirovich. 2017?
Happy New Year!