It should be taken as a given that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a master of ambiguity and strategic surprise.
After the Russian government resigned and Putin proposed amendments to the constitution in January, the Russian leader spent a great deal of time rebuffing claims he would try to run for president again when his fourth term in office was up in March 2024.
But this week, he did not back away from a proposal by Valentina Tereshkova – a trusted supporter and one of the most respected women in Russian politics – to change the constitution to reset Putin’s presidential terms to zero. This would legally allow him to run for the presidency again (and potentially a second consecutive term), thereby extending his reign past 2024 for another 12 years.
The 67-year-old Putin has been in charge of the country for the past 20 years, both as president (2000-08, 2012-present) and as de facto leader while serving as prime minister from 2008-12.
He has stayed in power longer than any other elected Russian head of state and still maintains strong approval ratings. However, the Russian public’s trust of Putin hit a six-year low last month, dropping sharply to just 35% in January.
Putin likely did not make this latest move in response to declining public trust. Rather, the proposed change to the constitution, which must still be approved by Russia’s Constitutional Court and a nationwide referendum, can be explained by three other major factors.
The move to signal possibly staying in power may be driven by the immediate need to offer some support to the volatile Russian markets, which plummeted following the collapse of talks between Russia and OPEC over oil production cuts.
The logic is simple: by indicating he may be staying on, Putin is trying to reassure investors that Russia is unlikely to slide back into internal political turmoil after almost two decades of relative calm under his continuous rule.
The Russian stock exchange improved immediately after the proposed constitutional change was announced and the ruble recovered some lost ground to major foreign currencies. However, this may prove to be just temporary relief.
This week’s announcement may also be an indication of a more serious challenge for Putin – identifying his political successor.
Even as public trust in Putin has declined in recent years, it’s even lower for his political allies, such as former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (5% in January 2020), current Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin (3%), head of the Russian Federal Assembly Valentina Matvienko (2%) and Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin (2%).
The only person the Russians seem to trust (besides Putin) is Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu, who garnered 19% in the January poll.
Shoygu is perhaps Putin’s most loyal ally in his inner circle and could be a potential heir, but it seems he has no ambition for the top job.
Another effect of Putin’s 20 years in power is that the Russian electorate does not see any viable alternative to the current president.
For most Russians, Putin is associated with the country’s rise as a great power, the revival of its military might and the stabilisation of the economy compared with the volatility of the 1990s. He’s also overseen a considerable decline in the risk of terrorist threats in the country.
There is a whole new generation of Russian voters who grew up in a country run only by Putin. Not all support Putin, but many young people are his biggest fans.
Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, once faced fierce political opposition in the Duma, the Russian parliament. But under Putin, the parliamentary opposition currently represented by the Communist Party, A Just Russia (a leftist party) and the liberal democrats has lost much of its support to the pro-Putin centrist and nationalist coalition of the United Russia party and the People’s Front movement.
Russia’s real liberal opposition is a lost cause. The most charismatic and trusted opposition figure in Russia, Alexey Navalny, has launched many anti-corruption investigations into figures in Putin’s party, yet his popular support base remains pitifully low. The same political trust poll by the independent Levada Centre shows Navalny at no more than 3% from 2017-20.
The real problem of Russia’s liberal opposition is its continuous failure to engage the vast majority of the conservative Russian electorate. This, combined with its
simultaneous courting of both big business and the small, underdeveloped middle class, as well as select intelligentsia, does more damage to its public reputation than the Kremlin’s oppressive measures.
As such, the Russian electorate is stuck with practically no alternative. On one hand, they want change and recognise Putin is no longer the most effective problem solver. On the other hand, they don’t see anyone else who is as experienced, trustworthy and capable of running the country as Putin.
Being both a populist and pragmatist, Putin has positioned himself well. Putin the populist gives Russians hope by addressing their anxiety over who could lead the country after him. Putin the pragmatist understands that his reputation in the eyes of ordinary Russians, while remaining strong, is nonetheless fading away.
Perhaps most critically, Putin remains a master of evasiveness, and his announcement this week left enough room for him to make a final decision on standing for another term closer to the 2024 election.
Putin’s love of power is balanced by his ambition to be remembered as yet another saviour of Russia. He will go for another term only if he feels confident he can deliver another success story. Failure is not an option for a strong, ambitious personality like Vladimir Putin.
News came from Moscow overnight that the Russian government had resigned, followed by the announcement that Putin would be recommending the current prime minister Dmitry Medvedev be replaced by the head of the tax office, Mikhail Mishustin.
Why has the government resigned, and what does it mean for the future?
Prior to the government’s resignation, President Vladimir Putin announced a series of proposed changes to the constitution to be placed before the people in a future referendum. In announcing the government’s resignation, Medvedev hinted that their resignation was to facilitate the progression of the proposed constitutional reforms.
Among others, Putin proposed that in the constitution:
international law should apply in Russia only if it does not contradict the constitution or restrict peoples’ rights and freedoms. This, he said, was a question of sovereignty
leading political figures should not have foreign citizenship or the right to live permanently in another state. As well as these qualifications, the president must have lived in Russia for the last 25 years
the president should not be able to hold the presidency for two consecutive terms (although Putin said he doesn’t think this is a matter of principle)
the prime minister and all ministers should be appointed by the State Duma (parliament) instead of the president, who would have no right to reject those appointments
the role of the State Council (an advisory body) should be expanded and strengthened
the independence of judges should be enshrined and protected.
The most important of these proposed changes (along with that of judicial independence) is that of moving the power to form the government from the president into the legislature.
If this was done and a truly accountable form of government was established, it would be a major advance on how the system has worked up until now.
But in the same speech, Putin argued that Russia needed to remain a presidential, not a parliamentary, republic. These two positions seem at odds with one another and a potential recipe for constitutional confusion.
One reason may be dissatisfaction with the government’s performance. The implication from Putin’s speech, and from many other comments, is that both the governance of Russia and the current government have been deficient.
Governance is seen by Putin to be hampered by the lack of a direct constitutional line between president and ministers, and this would be resolved by making the prime minister the key person in the policy sphere rather than the president.
This would be facilitated by removing the president’s power to choose the identity of the prime minister and some ministers. The government’s resignation could be seen as a response to the dissatisfaction with its performance.
But also relevant is power politics. Putin is due to step down as president in 2024. Thoughts are already turning to the question of the succession, in particular, will Putin go, and if so, who will replace him?
The current Constitution forbids Putin from standing for another presidential term in 2024. The last time he faced this question in 2008, Putin stepped down as president and became prime minister. The potential beefing up of the prime ministership under these proposals might make this strategy again attractive.
But in 2024 Putin will be 73, and it is not clear that he would really want to be involved in the sort of day-to-day policy discussions a prime minister must involve himself in. He has already been showing some irritation with the policy process.
However beefing up and reshaping the State Council could provide a slot into which a post-presidential Putin could move, giving him some continuing oversight powers while not making him drown in policy details and paper.
This is surmise. But what is undoubtedly true is that this is only the first public move in what is likely to be a prolonged process of succession and power transfer in Russia.
A wave of protests rocked Moscow and scores of other cities across Russia between 2011 and 2013. The demonstrators called for free and fair elections and some even demanded an end to the Putin regime. Many Russian commentators argued these mass protests were spearheaded by members of the urban middle class, and the world’s media concurred.
History has shown that where there is expansion of the middle class, democracy develops alongside. As the middle class accumulates wealth and property, it develops a vested interest in stability and the rule of law, promoting the development of a set of democratic checks and balances on the government.
Often seen as a bastion of democracy, Russia’s middle class is popularly regarded as a major source of opposition to the Putin regime. But does it give more support to democratic values, such as support for free and fair elections, a free press and a pluralistic political system, than other classes?
Divisions have weakened the solidarity of the Russian middle class and questioned its role as a catalyst for democratic change. That crucial dividing line is between those who depend on the state for their livelihood and those who work in the non-state sectors of the economy. As commentator Andrei Kolesnikov puts it:
The … end of the post-Soviet transition created a specific kind of middle class: one that grew out of oil and gas deposits, one that demanded both bread and circuses … But there is another middle class, too, born out of something very different … the giant army of state officials and public sector workers. Then there are the security services, investigators, prosecutors, judges: the backbone of the state. The class of people working not just directly for the state but also for state corporations and banks, and private structures whose existence depends entirely on connections with the state and officialdom.
My research reveals that most of the middle class support Putin, and given the choice, will opt for stability and the political status quo, rather than risk the uncertainties brought about by democratic reforms.
So what factors influence who belongs to the middle class? Economists focus on income and property. But defining the middle class this way fails to explain how such a diverse group of individuals could develop a shared class identity or consciousness. Income-based approaches really define middle “layers” rather than classes, and fail to capture low-income citizens who, according to other criteria such as education and occupation, would qualify for middle-class status.
Sociologists, in contrast, stress divisions between employers and employees, as well as those between “manual” and “mental” labour, and add other criteria, such as education and occupation, to those of income.
In a survey of 4,000 citizens carried out in collaboration with the Russian Institute of Sociology, we found that just 26% of the respondents could be defined as middle class, based on individuals who met criteria in three areas: income – an average monthly income not lower than the median for the country as a whole; occupation – non-manual “white collar” employees; and education – those with higher education.
Recognising the middle class’s role as a catalyst for economic development, Putin has called for an increase in its size “to encompass 60% of the population”. But his attempts to modernise the country to boost economic growth may end up sowing the seeds of its own destruction. For, as has been widely demonstrated, a society’s public values shift and become more hospitable to democracy as they become wealthier, more industrialised, more urban and better educated.
But it is important to stress that the middle classes are made up of a diverse group of citizens, each with a variety of political and moral attitudes, and its social composition will vary in different countries. An important factor here is the degree to which members of the middle class are dependent on the state for their livelihood, which is particularly relevant to the Russian middle class.
For example, in Russia, 76.6% of leading managers in the state sector were members of the middle class in 2011 compared to just 33% in 2007. For members of the military and security forces, the percentage of middle-class members grew from 25% in 2007 to 44% in 2011. In 2018, 48% of the Russian middle class were employed in the state sector.
We would expect there to be differences in the interests and values between those who are state-dependent for work and those who work in the private sector, and our study confirms this is the case. But the differences are not very large, and they have narrowed since the outbreak of the civil war in Ukraine
and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Support for the regime increased substantially in the wake of these developments, as the vast majority of Russian citizens supported Putin’s foreign policy towards Ukraine. Members of both sectors currently prioritise stability and economic security over liberal values, and both express high levels of trust in the Putin regime.
According to our survey, 63% of of state sector workers and 65% of private sector workers supported the idea that “Russia needs to revive national traditions and moral and religious values”, whereas just 37% and 35% respectively, supported the alternative that “Russia should move forward towards a modern way of life, such as in Europe”.
Similarly, 68% of state sector workers and 69% of private sector workers supported “strengthening the state’s power over the economy and politics”, whereas just 32% and 31% respectively, chose the option calling for “the release of citizens from excessive state control”.
Two thirds (66%) of state sector workers and 63% of private sector workers agreed that “it is necessary to introduce moral censorship over the media”, while 34% and 37% respectively, agreed that “the mass media and art should be free from censorship”. Finally, 73% of state sector workers and 64% of private sector workers expressed trust in the president.
In 2019, after almost two decades of Putin, it would appear untrue to say that Russia’s middle class universally supports liberal and democratic values. As has been the case in countries like China, those doing comfortably well seem quite happy to prop up an authoritarian regime if their interests are protected by the state.
At the now infamous Helsinki press conference held after the summit meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin, Trump indicated he was impressed with Putin’s denial of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
“I have great confidence in my intelligence people,” Trump said, “but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial.”
That answer must have pleased Vladimir Putin.
Strength and power have been key to Putin’s political brand ever since August 1999, when he was appointed as Russia’s prime minister by President Boris Yeltsin.
Putin led the country to victory in the second Chechen War, and as the virtual incumbent following Yeltsin’s resignation, he rode that wave of patriotism to victory in the presidential election of March 2000, with 53 percent of the national vote.
Putin makes strongman politics look effortless, and President Trump could not be clearer in his expressions of admiration and trust for his more experienced counterpart. From over two decades studying communist and post-communist politics, I believe there is value in looking past Putin’s confident self-projection and examining the machinery behind it.
As a former KGB officer and head of FSB, Russia’s national security agency, President Putin has professional roots in deception, disinformation and violence beyond the imagination and experience of most Americans outside the intelligence community. His 18-year record in public life provides high-profile cases where he has been equally “strong and powerful” in undermining truth – and targeting those who expose him.
Here is a short catalog of Putin’s most glaring lies, as well as his actions against those who challenged him.
1. In 1999, bombs exploded in a number of apartment buildings in Russia, killing 293 civilians.
The bombings were attributed to Chechen terrorism, driving up patriotic support for Russia’s military in invading Chechnya. When one bomb was detected and defused in the city of Ryazan before it went off, new Prime Minister Putin praised the people of Ryazan for their vigilance.
His subsequent strong leadership during the Chechen War was key to his election as president in March 2000.
Yet forensics, eyewitness accounts and whistleblower revelations all indicated that Russia’s security service, the FSB, planted the Ryazan bomb.
The commission established to investigate the FSB’s role in all the bombings discontinued its work in 2003 when two key members died violent deaths. Deputy Sergei Yushenkov was gunned down, and investigative journalist Yuri Shchekochikhin died in a hospital from an “unknown allergen” that shut down all his vital organs. FSB whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko, who directly accused Vladimir Putin of involvement in the apartment bombings, was poisoned in London in 2006.
2. In 2004, Chechen terrorists took hostage hundreds of schoolchildren and their teachers in a school in Beslan in North Ossetia.
Russian authorities refused to negotiate and instead deployed military forces to storm the school. More than 330 people died and another 550 were wounded. Among the dead were 184 children.
Putin was adamant that the use of force was justified and necessary in the face of terrorism, and used Beslan to increase centralized Kremlin power. He rejected a European Court of Human Rights judgment that Russian authorities used excessive force against their own citizens.
Journalist, human rights activist and Putin critic Ana Politkovskaya was poisoned when traveling to Beslan to cover the siege. She survived, and continued to research and publish on Putin’s assault on democracy until she was shot and killed outside her Moscow apartment in 2006.
3. In 2005, the American-born British CEO of Moscow-based investment fund Hermitage Capital, Bill Browder, was denied re-entry to Russia, and declared a threat to national security.
Browder’s tax attorney Sergei Magnitsky then uncovered a US$230 million tax fraud scheme against Hermitage Capital. Magnitsky’s work revealed high-level government collusion in the criminal looting of public assets.
After taking the allegations public, Magnitsky was arrested in Moscow on fabricated charges and detained for 11 months prior to trial. He was repeatedly abused in jail, including denial of treatment for chronic health conditions. Eventually he was beaten to death.
The Russian state’s punishment did not stop then. Magnitsky was posthumously tried and convicted for tax evasion.
Browder has subsequently pursued justice for Magnitsky, advocating for the worldwide adoption of the Magnitsky Act. The act was passed by the U.S. Congress in 2012 to sanction individual Russians involved in human rights abuses.
Putin held a December 2012 press conference
following the Magnitsky act’s passage and the Russian Duma’s subsequent retaliatory ban on American adoptions of Russian orphans. Putin said, “Magnitksy … was not tortured — he died of a heart attack.”
4. On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 people aboard.
In direct contradiction of the forensic evidence, Putin flatly denied any Russian involvement in shooting down MH17.
That denial comports with Putin’s long-time denial that Russian forces invaded Ukraine in 2014 – one of 10 false Russian claims about Ukraine identified and debunked by the U.S. State Department. That report is no longer available on the U.S. government website.
5. In February 2015, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in Moscow. Just before his death, Nemtsov had taped a television interview in which he discussed his investigations into Russian war crimes in Ukraine, and called President Putin “our expert in lying. He is a pathological liar.”
After Nemtsov’s death, President Putin assured Nemtsov’s mother, “We will do everything to ensure that the perpetrators of this vile and cynical crime and those who stand behind them are properly punished.”
Nemtsov’s relatives and allies insist on Putin’s complicity and have called the investigation and prosecution of five killers a cover-up. Video evidence and the journalistic investigation into the details of Nemtsov’s murder, likewise, see the highly organized hit involving multiple gunmen and vehicles as the work of a professional intelligence organization like the FSB.
The risks for individual Russians challenging Putin’s lies are clear. One journalist has listed 34 suspicious deaths since 2014.
Those killed have nonetheless left an evidentiary trail for a host of contemporary writers like Masha Gessen, David Satter and Peter Pomerantsev. Those writers, and others, detail how Putin has built enormous wealth and power by deploying violence and deception to control the political narrative and disable or eliminate meaningful opposition.
He might conclude that all of these independently produced, empirically-grounded investigations are somehow part of a grand deep-state conspiracy to defame or discredit a man of integrity who can and should be taken at his word.
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That conclusion, though, would dishonor the ordinary and extraordinary Russians who have stood up to the deception and violence of President Putin’s regime, risking or losing their lives as a result. It’s the responsibility of the American president to acknowledge this. By virtue of the office he holds, President Trump has the ability to stop being played by Putin, and speak truth to power.
In a now famous Fox News interview with Donald Trump in February 2017, Bill O’Reilly asked the new US president if he respected his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. The following discussion ensued:
Trump: Well, I respect a lot of people but that doesn’t mean I’m going to get along with him.
O’Reilly: But he’s a killer though, Putin’s a killer.
Trump: There are a lot of killers, we’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think — our country’s so innocent?
Not a few viewers in countries on the wrong end of US foreign policy may have had to stop and catch their breath at Trump’s final sentence. A common thread of so many of their experiences of US foreign policy is not only the bombing from above. Many share a deep repugnance toward what they see as a well-manicured facade of American moral superiority, which helps to frame, water down or justify the violence and humiliations to which they are regularly subjected.
Just for that breathless moment, it seemed this sentence of moral relativism tore a hole in this façade and threatened the moral protection it provides to members of the American establishment.
It is these elected politicians from both major parties, military, state department and security officials, spies, advisers and lobbyists who have reacted most vociferously to Trump’s moral relativism in international affairs. This was perhaps most evident in his accommodating attitude to Putin in general, and especially in Helsinki last month.
In the blanket and largely uncritical Western news coverage of the establishment’s expressions of outrage, commentaries and interviews in response to the July meeting, Trump was depicted as a traitor to the US, Putin’s puppet and now even a greater threat to US national and, indeed, international security.
They may or may not be correct on some or all counts. But it is worth examining exactly what or whom Trump was betraying in Helsinki. So what did Trump do? He accepted uncritically (then later awkwardly back-tracked) Putin’s denial of election meddling and adopted much of his critique of US foreign policy over the last couple of decades.
As far as we know, Trump did not even interrogate Putin over his deadly meddling in Ukraine. He may not be particularly interested. In the lead-up to Helsinki, Trump trash-talked old US allies (including NATO).
Taken together, this conduct exacerbated the establishment fear that Trump was threatening to dismantle well-established Western political structures geared toward containing Russian influence carried over from the Cold War. These structures have been essential to cementing a broader post-Cold War US unipolarity. This has given the US political establishment a free hand to pursue its foreign policies without much restraint but with terrible consequences for those affected in, for example, the Middle East.
I doubt Trump is pursuing a grand strategy to unravel these structures, especially when his rhetoric displays a penchant, even a fetish, for the US unipolarity these strategies help foster.
Furthermore, his rhetoric has not really translated into significant foreign policy changes so far. Much of it is meaningless. But there is whole body of scholarship and commentary that would encourage Trump in any dismantling efforts, as it argues that the carrying over of Cold War structures of Soviet (Russian) containment such as NATO after 1991 have stood in the way of the development of more peaceable relations between Russia and the West. Indeed, structures like NATO fuel Russian anxieties and aggression, which NATO was founded to combat.
More traditional scholarship disputes these “revisionist” ideas, citing Russia’s aggression as evidence of the indispensability of containment to international security.
Scholars on both sides can find evidence to support their arguments in Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Ukraine. But these revisionist ideas, or even the debate with more traditional ones, were hardly mentioned in the blanket media outrage over Helsinki. Critically, then, an examination of the object of Trump’s supposed “treachery” was also lacking when it was most needed.
The focus on outrage may just be the reality of covering an outrageous president in politically sensitive times. In any case, an issue remains for us in Australia to re-examine our own approach to Russia.
This could mean advocating a “new” revisionist or “new” traditional approach toward Russia in response to its conduct, especially in Ukraine. But it would also mean at least trying to untangle the latter from the broader implications of supporting American unipolarity and, hopefully, avoiding its consequences.
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This larger project beyond Russia is worth pursuing, if not for the sake of those who suffer its consequences around the globe, then at least for our own. Mass population dislocations, food shortages, terrorism and economic disruption threaten more than ever to reverberate all the way from those far-flung borders straight to our doorstep.
Russia keeps posing a massive intelligence puzzle to the West: it is never as weak as we may want it to be, nor is it as strong as we fear it may be.
So, how can we classify Russia as an international power? It is not the Soviet Union reincarnated, so it is not a reborn counterpoint to US global supremacy. Nor does it intend to be. But it remains a major strategic spoiler of the US’ ambitions to retain its rules-based global order.
Moscow is trying to strengthen its relationship with like-minded major powers. China is one of Russia’s comrades-in-arms, although not a formal ally. China and Russia are not forming any sort of anti-Western/anti-US alliance; both great powers have their own national agendas.
Over the past ten years, Russia and China have developed very close military ties, but their economic relationship remains uneven and quite low on the common strategic agenda. They are de facto engaged in soft competition across Central Asia and the Asia-Pacific.
But their intention to change the status quo in support of their ambitions aligns with their security and strategic agendas, at least for now. Just like China, Russia seeks to maximise its strategic autonomy by aggressively fending off any perceived challenges to its national interests or sovereignty.
The time cannot be better. US President Donald Trump keeps puzzling allies by reversing major political decisions of previous administrations, while prioritising an inward-looking approach to running his country. And he is no match for Vladimir Putin in terms of experience, charisma, domestic popularity and global influence.
Try a simple experiment: search any publication about Russia published by the Australian media and try to find an article on anything Russia-related that does not have a reference to Putin. We see in Putin a manifestation of Russia’s ambitions; its political, military, economic and even sport successes and failures; defence of traditional values and criticisms of the Western way of life.
Putin wants for Russia a “place under the sun”: that is, dominance over the immediate neighbourhood combined with Russia’s recognised right to have interests in other parts of the world. The big question is: does modern Russia have what it takes to be a global superpower? The reality is there is no definitive answer to that.
On the one hand, Russia possesses key elements of a superpower: it is self-sufficient when it comes to natural resources and it is an energy superpower; it is a space power with a developed sovereign capability; it has a world-class scientific capability; it is the second-biggest military superpower in the world behind the US. Finally, it has global ambitions and a global agenda.
On the other hand, like China, Russia does not have a civilisational agenda – a competitive political model that could be an alternative to Western liberalism based on a free-market economy. After all, the Cold War was a clash of competitive socioeconomic systems supported by geopolitical and military-strategic competition. There is none of that today.
Second, Russia does not have the economic might of China and its intertwined economic interaction with the US. The Russian economy has suffered a great deal from the tight sanctions regime implemented after the Ukraine crisis, and is only beginning now to show signs of recovery.
That is not to say Russia has lost the economic means to support itself and its global ambitions. Over the past two years, it has achieved a major breakthrough in exporting grain and other agricultural produce, making it one of the top-three foreign currency earners. In 2017 alone, Russia earned some US$20.5 billion by exporting agricultural produce.
Russia’s energy exports also remain high. In 2017, Russian energy giant Gazprom generated total revenue of US$103.6 billion. This year’s revenue is expected to reach US$108 billion. In Europe alone, Gazprom controls 34.7% of its energy market, thus making it an important element of Russia’s regional geoeconomics.
The Russian defence sector plays its traditional role of both earning much-needed cash and furthering Russia’s geopolitical agenda. In 2017, Russian arms exports were worth US$17 billion, while the total portfolio of foreign orders of Russian armaments and military equipment is about US$45 billion, effectively retaining the number-two position in global arms sales.
Still, Russia has no means of global economic expansionism. It is desperately seeking new economic opportunities and partnerships with other countries that do not want all the power focused on the US. This gives China a strategic lead because of its diversified extensive economic partnerships with the US, Europe and Asia.
Yet it would be premature to crown China as the sole superpower rival to the US. Unlike Russia, China clearly lacks political and diplomatic experience – the ability to play complex games on a global chessboard.
As an incoming superpower with global ambitions but limited experience in great power politics, China studies carefully the Soviet and Russian experiences and leaves Russia to fight all the major fights at international forums. North Korea and the South China Sea are among the few exceptions where the Chinese show strategic activism.
Apart from its extensive diplomatic experience, China also needs Russia’s strategic nuclear and conventional military might.
Under Putin, the Russian military managed to close the capability gap with the most advanced Western militaries and transformed itself from a large, under-equipped and understaffed army into an effective, highly motivated and battle-hardened force. Putin has given the once-cash-strapped military machine a massive financial boost – and, more importantly, full political support.
Between 2013 and 2017, Russia landed in the world’s top-three nations on defence expenditure, just behind the US and China. In Europe, Russia has remained the single largest defence spender and buyer of major combat systems.
From 2012 until early 2017, the Russian military received 30,000 new and upgraded armaments and items of heavy military equipment. The Syria campaign and Russia’s ability to exercise strategic reach has once again made the military factor supported by active diplomacy one of the key determinants of successful realising its national strategic agenda.
In short, Russia is a major global power in outlook and reach, locked in a values-based confrontation with the West. But it still lacks all elements of a developed superpower.
But what it does most effectively is play the role of a strategic spoiler in times when the world is gradually accepting a new international configuration with a suite of established and emerging great powers that would dominate a future world order.
It was the meeting we’ve all been waiting for. US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin met on Friday during the G20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany.
The key question was whether Trump or Putin would emerge as the stronger leader, with most backing Putin’s ability to manipulate and control the exchange. Trump’s lack of diplomatic or political experience, and his unwillingness to prepare for the encounter, inspired very little confidence that he would walk away with any serious concessions from Putin.
The meeting was scheduled to take half-an-hour. In fact it lasted more than two hours, and an indication the two leaders found a significant amount to talk about. The only other people present were US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and two interpreters. The little we know of what was actually discussed has come from statements Lavrov and Tillerson gave to the press following the meeting.
Tillerson said Trump pressed Putin over Russian interference in the 2016 election, but seemed to accept his denial that Russia did any such thing.
President Putin denied such involvement, as I think he has in the past.
Tillerson said the White House was not “dismissing the issue” but wanted to focus on “how do we secure a commitment” that there will not be interference in the future.
The big question going in to the meeting was whether or not Trump would raise the accusation with Putin. While he clearly did, the ease with which he appears to have accepted Putin’s protestations of innocence, and his reassurance that it won’t happen again, is remarkable.
According to journalists’ reports on Twitter, Lavrov had a slightly different spin on Trump’s reaction to the issue. He said:
In light of Trump’s remarks in Poland the day before, when he called into doubt the reliability of US intelligence on the issue, this has further undermined the credibility of the US intelligence community. That Trump did this during a face-to-face meeting with Putin can only deepen the mistrust between the CIA and FBI have for the White House, and further damage morale.
It can also be read as a clear victory for Putin, who came away from the meeting without having to seriously address charges that Russia systematically engaged in what is a gross violation of the democratic integrity and sovereignty of another country.
There was a clear opportunity for Trump to use the meeting to pressure Putin over his continuing support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
While any significant agreements over how to resolve one of the most complex conflicts in the region were highly unlikely, the two leaders did agree to support a ceasefire in an area of southwestern Syria. There were no other details, and Tillerson himself admitted that ceasefires in Syria have tended to fall apart very quickly.
While Russia and the US have a shared interest in fighting Islamic State in Syria, they disagree over the almost every other aspect of the conflict, particularly the future of Assad and the role of Iran.
Trump has recently ratcheted up to anti-Iranian rhetoric and it seems the Russian relationship with Iran could become a significant point of conflict between the US and Russia in the future.
No transcript of the meeting is available so it’s impossible to know exactly what was discussed here. But if Putin was not pressed on these points, it is certainly a missed opportunity.
While both Lavrov and Tillerson highlighted the shared interests the two countries have, neither Ukraine nor the ongoing nuclear crisis in North Korea could be counted among them.
North Korea’s testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile guaranteed that it would be high on the list of issues that would be discussed. Russia has contradicted the consensus among the other G20 leaders over the missile’s range, and blocked a resolution by the UN Security Council calling for “significant measures” in response to the test.
So, what do we make of this highly anticipated meeting?
With very little detail about what was actually discussed, and with the narrative firmly controlled by Lavrov, Trump would seem to have gained very little while conceding much.
Putin has come away with an implicit agreement to move on from the question of election meddling, without promising more than “dialgue” on Ukraine, no agreement on how to deal with North Korea, and no real movement on the horrific human tragedy in Syria.
Along with Tillerson’s affirmation that the two leaders shared “a clear positive chemistry”, it’s hard not to recall George W. Bush’s claim to have seen into Putin’s soul, and conclude that Putin has once again expertly played a US president.