Not so long ago, Vladimir Putin was sweeping all before him. Even before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, he was running rings around Western foreign policy – tearing chunks out of neighbouring countries, propping up the Assad regime in Syria, frustrating efforts to contain Iran, cementing a diplomatic alliance with China and keeping Europe hooked on Russian fossil fuels.
While many in the West have protested against his human rights record, the attempted boycott of the Sochi Olympics came to very little. An alarming number of European politicians even expressed their admiration for the man.
2015, however, has been a more difficult year for the Russian President and his foreign adventures.
In Syria, for instance, the Assad regime is on the back foot. A recent report in Foreign Policy summarises the situation:
“After roughly two years of being on the defensive, Syria’s rebels are making dramatic gains in the north of the country. In the span of six weeks, coalitions of insurgent fighters captured the city of Idlib and won a series of key strategic victories elsewhere in the governorate. In the face of the opposition, the Syrian Army and its supporting militias appear at their weakest point since early 2013.”
With Saudi Arabia exerting additional pressure through its control of oil prices, Russia’s previously uncompromising support is faltering:
“…Russia appears no longer wedded to the Assad regime’s long-term survival and is now more open to the idea of a managed transition that would ensure the best chances of post-regime stability.”
According to another Foreign Policy report, Putin has also bitten off more than he can chew in Ukraine:
“The Russian-occupied Donbass enclave in eastern Ukraine is on the verge of economic and social collapse. That grave fact casts the Russo-Ukrainian war in a different light. Normally, wars are fought over prize territory: winners gain it, losers lose it. As the man who owns the enclave and is likely to do so for the foreseeable future, Vladimir Putin is thus the loser.”
As discussed before on the Deep End, Putin wants a free hand to interfere military and diplomatically in Ukraine, but without paying the financial cost of yet another dependent rebel territory. However, Russia now finds itself caught in a trap of its own making:
“If Russia could inflict a decisive defeat on Ukraine, it could force it to retake the Donbass on Russia’s terms. But this would require a massive attack which would likely intensify Western sanctions, compel the Obama administration to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine, encounter determined Ukrainian resistance, and end up embroiling Russia in a bloody long-term war.”
Putin is also running into resistance on the energy front. According to an article by Nina Khruscheva for Project Syndicate, the EU is finally taking a stand:
“For years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has wielded Europe’s dependence on his country’s natural gas as a foreign-policy weapon, without fear of the European Union calling his bluff – until now. With the EU launching an antitrust case against the state-controlled gas conglomerate Gazprom, Europe has sent a clear signal that Putin’s brutishness is no longer as intimidating as it once was…
“…the European Commission is taking a page from Putin’s playbook. By seeking to punish Gazprom for its manipulation of energy prices, it is aiming a dagger at the heart of Putin’s regime.”
The longer-term trend towards shale gas, the expansion of renewable energy and advances in energy efficiency mean that this is just the start of Europe’s fightback.
Over the last few years, Putin has proved to be a frightening and baffling adversary – especially when the West is reluctant to risk open confrontation. However, events have shown that Russia can be outmanoeuvred. With a smart and united foreign policy, the West can turn the force of Putin’s aggression back against him – which, as a martial arts enthusiast, is something he ought to understand.