Putin, Grand Master of the Great Game, awaits next opponent

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
October 1, 2016

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, in this October 20, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/ Files

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, in this October 20, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/ Files

When the new United States president moves into the Oval Office early next year, at the top of her foreign policy priorities will be what to do about Vladimir Putin.

Forget the various manifestations of Islamic extremism. Their outrages may be dramatic, but they are, when all is said and done, only irritants committed by a small bunch of mad mullahs and their deranged followers.

Forget the demented Teletubby in North Korea. Kim Jong-un’s tottering regime will implode or be swatted out of existence before it becomes a real danger.

Even concerns about China’s Xi Jinping and his fantasies about recreating the glory days of the Middle Kingdom surrounded by obsequious vassal states can be put on the backburner for the moment. The most pressing concerns for China’s president are the faltering economy and a citizenry ever more willing to take to the streets to display its unhappiness with the terminally corrupt Communist Party.

In contrast, the Russian President is a clear and present danger.

Every now and then the fog of daily life lifts and there is a clear picture of our moment in history. This week is one such.

Two events have brought into sharp relief what many have known about Putin, but which many others – Donald Trump springs to mind – have preferred to overlook.

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The purposeful bombing of hospitals and relief operations in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo shows the value Putin puts in the strategic use of terror and brutality.

And Moscow’s response to evidence presented this week by investigators showing Russia’s involvement in the July 2014 shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 is the latest example of Putin’s mastery of disinformation and capitalising on the weaknesses in the western media.

Putin has every reason to feel emboldened by his dealings with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the European Union and recent U.S. Presidents. In every confrontation he has either forced a stalemate or won a significant victory.

Putin came to power in Russia in August 1999, and used the eight years of the George W Bush presidency to quietly stabilise the country internally, reassert state Kremlin control of the oligarch economic tsars, and begin to rebuild its military power after the chaos of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In this he was aided by the ease with which Bush was flattered into silence, and the Washington administration’s preoccupation with Islamic extremism and the ill-fated invasion of Iraq after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Putin also had his own Islamic problems in Chechnya, where he honed his predilection for the strategic usefulness of unrestrained brutality in the crushing of the capital Grozny in 2000. In 2003 the United Nations called Grozny “the most destroyed city in history.” But with the West’s attention fixed on Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, no one was ready to push the point with Putin.

Bush was halfway out the door in 2008 when Putin made a move that directly confronted the U.S. and NATO. The Black Sea republic of Georgia, a former Soviet satellite, was leaning heavily towards joining the EU and NATO when, early in 2008, two predominantly ethnic Russian enclaves, South Ossetia and Abkhazia sent a request to Moscow to have their independence recognized. Tensions increased and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili unwisely inflamed the situation in the apparent hope of engaging NATO in the sqabble.

NATO and Bush did not bite. Putin – now taking a temporary and constitutionally-required break from the presidency as Prime Minister – invaded Georgia. Saakashvili’s troops were easily overcome and the West did nothing. The two enclaves remain Russian reserves.

Putin learned from his Georgia escapade that the West’s trip wire for intervention is set very high – in part because of the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more recently in Libya. There is plenty of room closer to the ground for Putin to pursue his objectives of securing Russia’s borders and re-establishing its influence without triggering any meaningful push-back from the West.

Barack Obama came to the U.S. presidency in 2009 with a predilection to get his country out of the wars in which it had been embroiled by Bush. Obama was therefore just as determined to avoid embarking on new ones. With that mindset, it was foolish of him to box himself into a corner in the early months of the Arab Spring in 2011 by saying that any further use by the regime of President Bashar Assad of chemical weapons against rebels would be a “red line” demanding outside intervention. When Assad tested Obama’s resolve with further gas attacks, and Washington backed down, the message echoed around the Middle East, and nowhere louder than in the Kremlin.

The stage was set for Russian intervention in the Ukraine.

In February 2014, protesters in Kiev who wanted closer ties to Europe and NATO forced the resignation and flight of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, who had been democratically elected in 2010. Almost immediately, Moscow began organizing armed groups among the pro-Russian and ethnic Russian populations in the Crimea peninsular and eastern Ukraine. This was the first outing of the “little green men,” the heavily armed and well-trained groups without any national insignia, but who it is now certain are Russian special forces. In mid-March a referendum was held in Crimea, which backed becoming part of Russia. The international community has not approved Russia’s takeover of Crimea, but that is now an established reality.

So is the Russian presence among the anti-Kiev rebels in eastern Ukraine. There is now yet another de facto buffer state in the chain created by Putin to protect Russia from the eastward push of the EU and NATO. At the eastern end are the two enclaves in Georgia. In Moldova is Transdniester, an enclave occupied by Russian troops. This territorial dispute effectively blocks any moves towards EU or NATO membership by the Chisinau government.

No wonder then that NATO allies are now focussed on the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, where there are also large Russian minorities from these countries’ days in the Soviet Union. Troops are being deployed from other parts of NATO to these countries to deter Putin from again using his skills at asymmetrical warfare to create another buffer zone along Russia’s north-western border.

For the moment, Putin is more interested in Syria, where he sent forces last year to back besieged President Assad. Putin’s campaign is going well. It now seems inevitable that any political settlement will involve Assad, and that he will probably remain in power, at least in the western and economically most important part of Syria. Indeed, the battle for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and commercial hub when the country is functioning, suggests Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies may well win outright the war against rebels backed by the U.S. and its Gulf State allies.

Two weeks ago Putin and the Obama administration agreed on a ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid to be delivered to rebels holed up in the eastern part of Aleppo. But it soon became evident that Putin, Assad and Iran only intended the pause to be a piece of psychological warfare and an opportunity for their forces to prepare for the final assault.

The demoralising effect on the besieged rebels can only be imagined. They knew the United Nations had relief columns all lined up, that they were prevented by Damascus from proceeding, and that one was destroyed by Russian or regime warplanes.

Then came the purposeful bombing of hospitals and relief organizations by regime or Russian bombers. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was incandescent with rage this week. He called the attacks “war crimes” and said “such attacks are often deliberate to aggravate suffering and force people from contested territory.”

That is indeed the purpose, and in all likelihood it will work within the next few days. Putin knows he can do whatever he likes without any serious repercussions, especially not from the U.S. He no longer bothers to portray Russia as a mediating force in the Syrian conflict. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has flatly admitted that there is no point now in trying to negotiate a ceasefire process with Moscow.

Putin’s willingness to use the most brutal methods of warfare against civilians to achieve a strategic aim has been matched by plunging levers into another weakness in Western society.

That fissure was described succinctly by Edward Lucas, a senior editor at The Economist magazine. “Russia has really grasped the post-truth environment,” he wrote. “And they will lie about things absolutely brazenly. They understand the weakness of our media in the post-Cold War environment: that we prioritize fairness over truth.”

(Putin’s great fan, Donald Trump, has also recognized the value of the brazen lie and that the media, especially the U.S. media, is so dedicated to fairness and balance that it would not call him out. In the final days of the presidential campaign, that seems to be changing.)

Putin comes from the culture of the old Soviet secret police and intelligence service, the KGB, of which he was an officer. KGB officers were masters of disinformation and spreading confusion by the planting of fabricated, but marginally plausible stories.

These old skills have been relearned and redeployed under Putin. On the allegations that in July 2014 Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was downed killing all 298 people on board by a Russian 9M38 missile fired from a Buk anti-aircraft system stationed in rebel-held eastern Ukraine, Moscow has mounted a massive disinformation campaign. It has put out doctored photographs and satellite images, trying to make the case that the airliner was either shot down by a Ukrainian fighter jet, or by an anti-aircraft missile fired from territory controlled by the Kiev government. Dutch investigators – they headed the inquiry because the flight originated at Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport – conclusively exposed the Russian duplicity this week. The Buk system was tracked coming over the border from Russia into eastern Ukraine and then being taken back after downing the Malaysia Airlines plane. The only remaining questions are who exactly oversaw the operation, which may well have been a mistake. The real target was probably Ukrainian air force cargo planes. The Dutch have the names of 100 suspects.

Yet even with this evidence Moscow continues with its denials. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zarkharova, said in response to the report: “The conclusions of the Dutch Prosecutor’s office confirmed that the investigation is biased and politically motivated.”

Putin is using the same retort to charges that Russia is involved in the bombing of hospitals and relief organizations in Syria. Russian spokesmen have denied that either their or Syrian warplanes have been involved in the destruction of relief convoys or medical centres, even though it is only their planes that have been operating in those areas.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has sown more confusion by blaming the U.S. and its allies for derailing the ceasefire. Peskov said the breakdown was caused by the U.S. failure to separate the so-called “moderate” rebels, backed by Washington and the Gulf States, from extremist groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al Nursa), which recently shifted allegiance from al-Qaida to the Islamic State group.

This is nonsense. A major problem in attempts by Washington to co-ordinate with Russia attacks on the extremist Islamic State group and its allies has been that Moscow and Assad see all the rebels as terrorists and are indiscriminate in trying to slaughter them.

Putin would undoubtedly be delighted to see Donald Trump in the White House; a man with whom he appears to share attitudes towards the truth.

And then there’s all those unanswered questions about how much Russian oligarch money is propping up the Trump real estate empire, if such an empire actually exists. Trump’s disdain for NATO and most U.S. allies is also a great boon for Putin. He won’t have to sow confusion in the ranks of Russia’s adversaries if the President of the United States is willing and able to do it for him.

Hilary Clinton will be an entirely different challenge for Putin. From her record, she is a more willing interventionist than Obama. And when one looks at the record of women who have risen to government leadership in democracies – Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher – they can be more willing to back their country’s interests with military might than their male counterparts.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

Contact, including queries about syndication/republishing: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

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