The western commentariat doesn’t know what to do with Russian President Vladimir Putin, or the enigmatic country that he leads. This can be seen in the comically diverse opinions presently being gravely intoned as to what Putin is doing in both Syria and Ukraine. “Putin is a genius”; “Putin is a fool”; “Russia is regaining its Cold War strength”; ‘Russia is about to collapse”. It is usually the case that, when foreign policy analysis is this cavernously divided, most analysts don’t know what is going on.
But regular readers of this column will know that I have had the Russian President in my sights for a goodly number of years. I’d argue that – beyond the Bond villain bells and whistles that surround the Kremlin – the Russian President is at heart a Gaullist: a committed Russian nationalist, determined to restore pride to his battered country following its humiliating collapse at the end of the Cold War.
Like Charles De Gaulle, Putin sees anti-Americanism as part of his narrative of national rebirth, expertly taking advantage of the mistakes and follies of the global superpower as an instrument in unifying his country. By skilfully contrasting his swashbuckling decisiveness in Syria and Ukraine with western dithering, Putin has found a way of re-projecting Russian national might onto the global stage.
While Syria has the world’s attention, however, it is in Ukraine that Putin’s Gaullist strategy has met with its greatest success recently. By the end of September, it was becoming clear that the conflict in Ukraine had produced another frozen war – similar to the earlier results in both Georgia and Transnistria – with Russian proxies emerging to castrate challengers to its regional might.
In southeastern Ukraine, the Russian-backed separatists have stopped extending their territorial gains, mainly due to the fact that the Kremlin has stopped sending them heavy weapons and other aid. At the same time, the Ukrainian army has stopped trying to defeat them. This result suits the Russian President to the ground, as it ensures that a pro-western Kiev will neither formally join the West (in the guise of EU membership) or emerge as a successful regional counter-model, imperilling Putin’s hold on his own country.
Earlier this month, two little-commented-upon events confirmed this assessment. First, the French and the Germans basically threw in the towel in terms of actively resisting the Russian President’s intervention in Ukraine. Instead, they imposed an election plan upon hapless President Poroshenko of Ukraine.
Kiev is to design a special election law, in consultation with the hated Russians and the separatists. Part of this process will allow the granting of amnesty to rebel leaders, allowing them to run for office, dominating local politics for the foreseeable future. Then local elections are to be held. Only after all this has come to pass – on terms hugely favourable to the Russian President – is Putin obligated to turn control of the porous Russian-Ukrainian border back to Kiev.
But it gets even better for the Kremlin. Crucially, French President Hollande has recently made it clear to reporters that, given the difficulties involved, it is not likely that this process will conclude this year; in essence, Russia was just granted a pain-free extension of the Minsk II ceasefire agreement, which clearly stipulated that the border must be in Ukrainian hands by the end of 2015. Simply put, assuming the conflict stays frozen, no one in a Europe buffeted by a series of crises they simply cannot master – be it the euro disaster or the current refugee debacle – has the stomach to take on the Russian President.
It is little wonder that, just days later, Putin pocketed his diplomatic victory. With the Russian President pulling the strings, the separatists agreed to postpone their threatened unilateral elections, a course of action that would have definitively smashed the Minsk II agreement into pieces. Why destroy a settlement that confirms you are winning?
But, as was true for the flamboyant De Gaulle, there are limits to what Putin’s tactical brilliance can achieve. Like the French general, Putin is simply playing a bad poker hand well. The IMF estimates that Russian GDP is set to slip by a calamitous 3.8 per cent this year; the economy is smaller than that of Texas. In the end, nothing either De Gaulle did, or Putin is now doing, can change the basic fact that both France and Russia are in pronounced decline. But that does not mean – given his tactical genius – that the Russian President cannot cause an awful lot of trouble along the way.
Dr John C Hulsman is senior columnist at City A.M. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author most recently of Lawrence of Arabia, To Begin the World Over Again. He is president and co-founder of John C Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a global political risk consultancy, and available for corporate speaking and private briefings at www.chartwellspeakers.com