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Putin’s Russian Roulette

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Russian Roulette

First and foremost, the dust has not yet settled over the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, and that of South Ossetia from Georgia. Despite international opprobrium, Moscow, overtly and covertly, is building up military presence in the occupied regions. Trump administration tried to prop up Ukrainian dispensation by selling it lethal weapons along with moral and political support. However, Ukraine’s plight shows no signs of abating as an aura of repression and intimidation is still lurking in the annexed peninsula with tighter control, restrictions and presence of Russian military. Furthermore, Kremlin is on the verge of completing Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will connect Russia with Germany through Baltic Sea bypassing Ukraine. This will strip Ukraine of billions of dollars in terms of transit fee on the one side, and will increase western Europe’s dependence on Russia, on the other.
Second, although Putin himself is trapped in financial entanglements as he is facing corruption charges at home for his alleged link to a Black Sea palace that costs $98 billion and whisking away of $93 million from food money way back when he was Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg, yet he is continuously tampering with the economy to keep Russian boat afloat and diversify the market away from the clutches of US dollar to escape the brunt of sanctions. He is no savvy economic steward, yet his conservative monetary and fiscal policies, coupled with austerity measures, have kept the threat of financial meltdown at bay. Despite commodity crash, Russian oil production is post-Soviet high and some growth is making its way. He touted that he could ditch dollar for energy trade with Europe and use euro instead. Concurrently, Russian finance ministry also claimed that it would scrap dollar from its $186 billion national wealth fund in pursuit of Putin’s de-dollarization campaign. Yet in hindsight, the Russian economy is held hostage to cyclical patterns of boom and bust owing to inflationary pressures, recessionary shocks and external sanctions.
Third, Putin’s obsession with, and derision towards, opposition is also deepening the rot. The strictures on media and civil society have been widely condemned. The recent botched attempt to poison Alexei Navalny, the most important opposition figure and a fierce critic of Putin, raised eyebrows of many world leaders. The Moscow court went insofar as to say that it was considering declaring Navalny’s anti-corruption organization a terrorist outfit. Similarly, a former member of the state Duma, Dimitry Gudkov, was forced to flee the country and go into exile. In the same vein, the recent melodrama surrounding ill-conceived diversion of Ryanair flight and its forced grounding by Belarusian authorities was condemned as a case of state-sponsored case of hijacking and violation of international law. The arrest of Roman Protasevich, Belarusian journalist and critic, who was en route to Lithuania, was tacitly supported by Russia, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel went so far as to say that unanswered questions remained about Kremlin’s role in the crisis. Putin and Belarus’ super-hero, Alexander Lukashenko, met at Sochi resort in Black Sea after the whole episode which further raised doubts and suspicions about this supposedly joint venture.
Several other activists are also either behind bars or beyond Russia’s borders in forced exile; thus, masquerading Russia as a dictatorial, fascist and rogue state in international community.
Fourth, apart from having a substantial footprint in Eastern Europe, Russia is spreading its tentacles in Mediterranean which, according to policy experts, symbolizes a larger area of competition between the United States and Russia. The potential sale of Su-30 fighter jets to Egypt, support of Assad regime in Syria, establishment of naval facility in Tartus and airbase Al-Hameimim in Syria, selling of S-400 to Turkey – thus putting off anticipated Turkish acquisition of F-35 jets from US – and possible formation of military base in Al-Jufrah in Libya have unnerved US, West and Nato.
Moreover Russia’s bad ‘bromance’ with the United States is also getting uglier, Trump administration, though had soft leanings towards Putin, showed no clemency and tried its best to tighten economic and strategic noose around Moscow. It flamboyantly scrapped Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987 that banned land-based ballistic and cruise missiles within a range of 500-1000km, trashed Open Skies Treaty of 1992, a Russo-Western agreement that allowed unarmed reconnaissance fights over each other’s territory and deliberately chose to lapse NEW START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), and Putin failed to woo Trump into getting any substantial reprieve on these fronts. Similarly, Russia’s meddling in US elections, sophisticated cyber and ransomware attacks on US firms, not to mention recent attack on US meat giant JBS which jacked up meat prices across the country, and placement of theatre missile defence system in South Ossetia. Abkhazia and Crimea have raised Washington’s hackles.
In fine, Putin’s Russia is rapidly transforming and re-calibrating its foreign policy to shore up its policy framework for military primacy, economic stability, energy security and political vibrancy against its rivals. Its purpose is to circumscribe Nato’s outreach to its southern flanks, protect its current and future client states, like Syria and Iran, and enhance its influence into the tapestry of Europe’s political and economic affairs, but it will be a tight-rope walk for Putin. He can repress political opponents but not to the extent where populist backlash erupts. He can manipulate the news but not to the extent where people start distrusting media. He can reward cronies but not to the point where economy collapses. Last but not least, he can muster up his base with anti-West moves but not to the point where prospects of a confrontation with West reach a tipping point. For Putin, it will be a hard bargain if not a Russian roulette, the consequences of which will decide the fate of the strongman in general and Russia in particular.
The writer is a civil servant, serving in the Government of Punjab. He can be reached at:

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