quinta-feira, 26 de novembro de 2015
How not to deal with a humbled Putin
I wonder what happened to Vladimir Putin the grandmaster? I had given up counting the commentaries casting the Russian president as a daring, decisive foil to a collection of feeble, vacillating leaders in the world’s advanced democracies. The hyperbole was always just that. Now we are catching a glimpse of Russia’s real vulnerability.
By any measure, Mr Putin has lost some of his shine. Moscow’s military gambit in Syria was widely hailed as a game-changer — the sort of bold chess opening that US President Barack Obama would never risk. By committing forces the Russian leader had positioned himself at the centre of any international effort to end the civil war. He had put paid to western demands for the forced removal of Bashar al-Assad. Banished from polite diplomatic society after the invasion of Ukraine, the scowling figure in the shadows was suddenly back at the top table.
Television images of sleek Russian warplanes and submerged submarines raining fire on Syrian rebels burnished the president’s self-image as the leader of a great patriotic revival. Who said Russia was no longer a superpower? We have short memories. Not so long ago western audiences mistook missiles lighting up the sky for America’s power to bend the arc of history. Remember Baghdad in the spring of 2003?
The lionisation of Mr Putin came before terrorists affiliated to the self-styled Islamic State planted the bomb that killed nearly 220 Russian holidaymakers on a flight home from the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh; the murders were claimed as a reprisal for Moscow’s Syrian intervention. And it was before this week’s downing by Turkish warplanes of a Russian jet, said to have strayed across the Syrian border into Turkey’s airspace. And it was before Ukrainian saboteurs — with or without the collusion of Kiev — turned off the lights in Russian-occupied Crimea by blowing up power-supply lines.
What some had imagined a victory for Mr Putin in Ukraine has turned into a mire. He can claim to have prevented that country falling under the spell of the west, though that possibility was always overstated. Annexing Crimea, though, is a costly burden. So, too, are the pro-Russian enclaves in eastern Ukraine. For their part, European governments have surprised themselves with their own resolve by sustaining economic sanctions that impose real costs on Moscow.
Even without US and European sanctions, the Russian economy would be in serious trouble. The collapse in oil and gas prices has exposed Mr Putin’s failure to modernise or diversify the nation’s sources of output. The economy is shrinking and living standards are falling. Capital flight is draining foreign reserves and overseas investors are staying away. Some say the worst is over; few expect a significant recovery.
None of this is to imply Mr Putin is under threat. At home, his assertive nationalism has public purchase. His popular support remains somewhere in the stratosphere. Mr Obama, Germany’s Angela Merkel or almost any other leader you could think of would happily swap approval ratings with the Russian president. Nor will recent setbacks diminish his capacity to make trouble, whether in Ukraine or in Syria.
The signs are that both Moscow and Ankara want to avoid escalation after the downing of the Russian jet, but it would be a mistake to rule out another flare-up. The overlapping military operations between Russia and western powers offer an ever-present risk of accidental confrontation.
So what should be the west’s next move? The first answer is that it should seek to capitalise on Mr Putin’s troubles by deepening engagement with Moscow in the quest for a ceasefire and then for some sort of a political framework for Syria. The second is that Washington, Berlin and Paris must avoid loose talk about resets and rapprochement. To borrow a phrase from the late Margaret Thatcher, this is no time to wobble. The third, following from the second, is that the west should take what the diplomats call a strictly instrumental approach to the relationship with Moscow.
The need to co-ordinate military operations in Syria speaks for itself. If Mr Putin is willing to forge a real partnership against Isis, the west should respond with encouragement. There can never be a durable settlement while Mr Assad remains in office, but the so-called moderate opposition held up in Washington and elsewhere as government-in-waiting is in large part a fiction. A political transition would require time to forge a viable alternative and the consent of both Russia and Iran.
The unforgivable mistake would be to accept any crossover from Syria to Ukraine. Mr Putin will want to trade co-operation in Syria for western concessions in Ukraine. That way lies ruin. European leaders tempted to ease sanctions should recall that they successfully separated the Iran nuclear deal from the dispute about Ukraine. And no one should forget that Russia, every bit as much as the west, has an interest in the defeat of violent Islamist extremism.
Syria has left everyone in a hole. The US and Europe misread the conflict almost from the outset. Mr Putin, the decisive tactician, has shown himself a poor strategist. If a deal is still possible then everyone should be ready to seize the moment, but no one should imagine that the Russian president has given up his revanchist worldview.