- Russian President Vladimir Putin went on a victory lap this week, replacing the US as chief power broker in Syria, and gaining a closer ally in Europe’s backyard.
- This is a far cry from the Putin of 2014, who became an international pariah after promoting civil unrest in Ukraine and annexing Crimea.
- President Donald Trump effectively handed him these victories by pulling out of Syria, diminishing the US interest in Ukraine’s security, and inviting Putin back to the world stage.
- Trump’s Syria withdrawal, in particular, made “Russia look like a major world power on the world stage,” said James Nixey, head of Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia program.
- The European Union, too internally divided to agree on a coherent Russia policy, has also failed to rein in Putin.
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Vladimir Putin is on a roll.
This week alone, the Russian president:
His deal to jointly patrol northeastern Syria with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, made on Tuesday, establishes Russia as a power player in the war-torn country.
Putin is now a bridge between Turkish militants and Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and a guarantor of regional security.
His renewed friendship with Erdogan has also secured for him an ally, and a useful buffer between the Russian heartland and European territory.
As the only country straddling Asia and Europe, Turkey has long served as Russia and Europe’s middleman.
Putin’s embrace of Turkey comes despite its membership of NATO, the military bloc former specifically to check Russian ambition.
“NATO was formed to keep Russia’s former Soviet empire in check. Now, Russian military police have unrestrained access to hundreds of kilometers of NATO’s southern border, at the invitation of a NATO member,” CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh wrote on Wednesday.
“That is something Vladimir Putin can only have dreamed of.”
Putin’s expansion into Africa — highlighted in this week’s first Russia-Africa Summit — has shown to the world a desire to cement his economic influence beyond his immediate surroundings. The Soviet Union used to have a major presence on the continent, but that has decreased since the end of the Cold War.
“Whether it’s through diamond extraction or arms sales in Madagascar, or energy deals in Nigeria or Libya, the Russians are [showing themselves to be] an increasing force to be reckoned with,” said James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House.
Russia has also staged brazen attacks in Western countries in recent years, notably a daylight killing of a former Chechen rebel in Berlin this August and the botched poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, last year.
Though the Kremlin has denied ordering either attack, observers say the hallmarks of a Russian operation in both cases are unmistakable — and indeed so blatant as to suggest Putin has little desire to cover his tracks.
This victory lap is a far cry from the Putin of 2014, who became an international pariah after annexing Crimea, propping up separatists in Ukraine war-torn Donbass region, and catching the blame after those separatists shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, the worst attack on an airliner since 9/11.
That year, the G8 suspended Russia from the group, ostensibly ejecting Russia from the world stage.
Western countries, led by the US and European Union, also introduced a series of punitive sanctions on it. The Russian economy is still floundering under those sanctions, though the financial pain has done little to restrain it overseas.
Putin is trying to establish a great power. Trump seems fine with that.
Putin has long tried to cement Russia’s position a superpower, and Trump has made it startlingly easy for him, Nixey said.
Trump “doesn’t really care what the consequences there are regionally [in Syria] because he’s more interested in what it means for the US,” Nixey told Business Insider.
“He doesn’t regard the Russian intervention as being a bad thing or a good thing particularly, but it doesn’t matter as long as he’s out.”
Meanwhile, he said, “it makes Russia look like a major world power on the world stage. Secondly, it gives Russia a foot in the door for future energy contracts, both flows of energy from the region and assistance to the region: arms, energy, etc. Never forget the economic motive: it’s always there for Russia as well.”
Shortly after Trump announced his withdrawal from northeastern Syria, Russian journalists described it as an “unexpected ‘lottery win'” for Putin, journalist Julia Davis reported for The Daily Beast.
Maksim Yusin, an editor at the independent Kommersant newspaper even joked, according to Davis: “I’ve been watching Trump’s behavior lately and get seditious thoughts: maybe he really is a Russian agent? He is laboring so hard to strengthen the international image of Russia in general.”
As American troops pulled out of Syria this month, a Western military official from the anti-ISIS coalition in Syria also told Business Insider’s Mitch Prothero: “Putin likely can’t believe his luck.”
Trump has also taken considerable steps to welcome Putin back onto the world stage, erasing his predecessor Barack Obama’s moves to freeze him out.
Trump has demonstrably weakened his focus on providing military aid for Ukraine — which the US ramped up in 2014 after the Crimea annexation — since diplomats revealed that Trump threatened to freeze military aid in exchange for dirt on his Democratic rival Joe Biden earlier this year.
During this year’s G7 summit, Trump also aggressively lobbied for Russia to be granted re-entry into the group that expelled it over the annexation of Crimea. The state-run Rossiya-1 network reportedly played celebratory music as it reported the news.
One Republican lawmaker told Business Insider’s Sonam Sheth at the time that Trump “looked like Putin’s puppet.”
The lawmaker, who spoke anonymously, noted that the move was doubly strange because Trump seemed not to want anything in exchange.
Europe is also too weak to rein in Russia
The rest of West has also show itself unwilling or unable to rein in Russia right now.
Though Russia has long been a threat to the EU, the 28-member bloc has struggled to unite around a course of action to counter it.
French President Emmanuel Macron has in recent weeks attempted to strike a deal between the EU and Russia, rather than act against it — a move that prompted skepticism among Germany, Poland, and Baltic states, the Financial Times reported.
Nixey, the Chatham House expert, said: “They [European leaders] are not stopping them because a) they can’t agree on a joint response b) they don’t all share the same threat perception — it’s different in Lisbon than in Tallinn.”
And as Nora Müller, the executive director of international affairs at Germany’s Körber-Stiftung think tank, told Carnegie Europe: “Instead of proving our Weltpolitikfähigkeit, our ability to act on the world stage, we set a new record in wobbliness.”
“Yes, Europe has to navigate rough geopolitical waters with an erratic president in the White House and a wayward Turkey testing the limits of NATO cohesion,” she added. “But this is no excuse for burying one’s head in the sand.”
Despite his apparent pre-eminence of late, Putin still has significant challenges, including an economy that remains crippled by global sanctions.
And on the domestic front, thousands of people this summer defied police orders to protest for free elections in Moscow, a remarkably public rebuke for the president.
Despite these disadvantages and more, Russia has nonetheless has managed to exert an outsize influence on the world via its strongman president.
This week has shown that, with the West happy to wave him through, there is little standing in Putin’s way.