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Vladimir Putin: Expansionist Or Pragmatic?

We should look at Russia’s foreign policy under Putin through the Indian lens and not through those of the West. Unfortunately, public perceptions of Russia in India are influenced by pronouncements on the country and its leadership by western political and media circles, which are routinely reproduced in our own media.

The Soviet Union was recognised as a superpower along with America during the Cold War. With the Soviet Union’s collapse Russia lost that status, was in disarray for several years, suffered severe economic stress, its resources were looted by oligarchs and its experiment with democracy and the market economy under American advisers worsened matters rather than stabilising the situation.

If from this Putin concluded that neither western style democracy nor the market economy were suited to Russia’s situation, he may not have been wrong. Rebuilding Russian power and influence, defending its political, economic and security interests through a mixture of authoritarianism and democracy, allowing freedom but with restrictions, regaining control of the country’s politics and economics, have been the objectives of Putin’s internal and external policies.

To characterise Putin’s external policies as expansionism would be wrong. His policies have been essentially defensive in nature. He has had to deal with the West’s expansionism in Europe through NATO and the EU. Extending the membership of both these organisations to the Baltic states and eastern Europe was one thing but seeking to bring Georgia and Ukraine into the EU orbit through an association agreement and, potentially even NATO membership, was bound to be looked at by Russia as western expansionism into its veritable heartland with the intention of isolating it from Europe, permanently weakening it geopolitically and piercing its defences.

Yugoslavia was destroyed through western intervention and territorial changes were thus brought about in Russia’s periphery. NATO has now been expanded to the Balkans, with Montenegro joining in 2017 and Macedonia getting ready to join. The United States has placed components of its ABM system in Poland and Romania, triggering U.S.-Russia differences over the INF Treaty, with America accusing Russia of violating it by developing a new missile and seeking its full destruction, and Russia accusing America’s location of its ABM systems in Europe as a violation. The U.S. has now announced its decision to withdraw from the treaty, which will generate new tensions in Europe.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for the ethnic Russian population in eastern Ukraine has to be viewed in context and not simply as Russia violating international law, changing the territorial status quo in Europe and engaging in empire-building. The root of the Ukrainian problem lies in NATO’s and EU’s creeping expansion eastwards, with Ukraine as the most prized target. Aware of the divisions within Ukraine between the Russian Orthodox ethnic and Russian-speaking population in the east and the more pro-West, Catholic population in the west, not to mention Russia’s vital political, economic and security interests in Ukraine, the West should have dealt with that country much more circumspectly and not promoted a crisis there.

The West intervened in Iraq, Libya, Syria and now in Venezuela for reasons that bear no comparison in seriousness and threat to national security with those that prompted Russian intervention in Ukraine. Russia has seen the U.S. and its allies destroying Iraq and Libya and intervening in Syria to bring about another regime change in West Asia. The West has been involved in shaping the map of West Asia, with Russia, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, left as a bystander. Keeping its longstanding relations with Syria in view, the need to preserve its leased naval base at Tartus and combating the Islamic State, Putin intervened in Syria in 2015. It was a bold step, given Russia’s weakened position, but proved successful.

Russia has its own reading of the origins of the Islamic State, believing that the West manipulates these forces for geopolitical ends, with Russia as a target. Today, Russia cannot be excluded from any solution in Syria. Its effective intervention has changed its equations with the regional Arab states because they see a revival of Russian power in the area with which they have to deal. In fighting the Islamic State, Russia was also able to showcase its new smart weaponry. Russia, Iran and Turkey have forged pragmatic understandings on Syria, which respond to the interests of the three countries.

Despite its close collaboration with Iran and Turkey in Syria in opposition to Saudi Arabia’s involvement, Russia has forged pragmatic cooperation with Saudi Arabia, including on levels of oil production. In December 2018, Russia and OPEC agreed to cut oil production by 1.2 million bpd, with Russia agreeing to cut 230,000 barrels out of its total production of 11.4 million bpd, which is not too significant. Apart from stemming the decline in oil prices in an over-supplied market and countering U.S. pressure on Saudi Arabia to keep oil prices low in order to ensure that by excluding Iran from the international oil market prices do not shoot up excessively and further erode support for its Iran sanctions policy, Russia is also trying to politically capitalise on the tensions that have arisen in U.S.-Saudi Arabia relations after the Khashoggi murder. It may explain the high-fives between Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman at the G-20 summit in Argentina.

Today, Russia and Putin are demonised in the West. Russia’s alleged interference in the U.S. presidential elections that brought Trump to power has become a subject of intense domestic political party struggle in the United States. The Democrats are seeking to de-legitimise Trump’s election because of Russian meddling in his favour, with the U.S. Congress seeking to sanction it brutally as is the case with the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which has serious implications for India’s defence ties with Russia. The dialogue between Russia and America has effectively broken down, a point that Putin underlines repeatedly with concern, as he rightly believes that the issues facing the international community need such a dialogue.

The United States has, however, designated Russia as its principal foe. With Russia sanctioned repeatedly by the U.S. and Europe over Ukraine, the Skripal poisoning etc, Russia has strengthened its strategic ties with China, which too has implications for India. Putin is now opposing U.S. power wherever he can, with renewed confidence after his intervention to check-mate America in Syria, weathering western sanctions, unveiling advanced new weaponry such as hypersonic missiles, underwater drones and the like to supposedly render ineffective any American ABM system.

This explains Putin’s highly pragmatic approach to issues, with Russia’s needs primarily in mind. He has developed understandings with President Erdogan of Turkey,a NATO member, which has currently tensions in its relations with the U.S. and Europe. He has reached out to Pakistan that too has come under pressure from the U.S. on its duplicitous policies on terrorism and in Afghanistan. It has begun doing joint military exercises with Pakistan and has also sold it some combat helicopters. It has begun dealing with the Taliban officially, recognising it as a legitimate political force in Afghanistan. This has opened up a political and strategic gap between Russia’s and India’s approach to the Taliban. This growing lack of alignment in Russian and Indian approaches to Afghanistan has significance in the context of India, Russia and Iran backing the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in the past, and today Russia and Iran backing the latter’s return to power in Afghanistan. Whether Russia can exert control over the Taliban’s post-U.S. withdrawal policies, moderate its Islamic ideology, count on the Taliban to actively prevent religious extremism spilling over into Central Asia from Afghanistan, is seriously open to question.

India-Russia relations remain strong but they need tending because of the new pulls and pressures within the international system that affect the options of both countries.

(The author is a former foreign secretary of India. Views are personal)



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