Having all but lost his Ukraine gambit, Russian President Vladimir Putin headed to India and Turkey on state visits in early December. The Kremlin leader’s talks with Indian and Turkish rulers appear to be an attempt to give an “asymmetrical answer” to the global hegemony of the United States, some political analysts contend.
With the Ukrainian Supreme Court ruling last Friday (December 3) that the disputed November 21 presidential runoff had been spoiled by fraud, Ukrainian voters seem almost certain to head back to the polls on December 26 to try again to select a new leader. Now it seems increasingly unlikely that the Kremlin, which rudely interfered with the Ukrainian election process throughout the campaign, will be able to install Putin’s favorite as president of the strategic Slavic nation. Such an outcome could severely undermine Russia’s control over its neighbors, which Putin sees as key to reasserting Moscow’s power on the world stage.
The Kremlin itself raised the stakes in Ukraine. As some independent observers note, due to Russia’s massive meddling, the choice now being made by the Ukrainian people has come to be seen as an historic one. Most Russian analysts viewed the presidential election as a geopolitical “battle for Ukraine” waged between Moscow and Washington. With the increasing probability that a democratic challenger will become Ukraine’s next president, Kremlin strategists must see this scenario as a big win for the United States and a clear geo-strategic loss for Russia.
Putin did not immediately react to the events unfolding in Ukraine following the Supreme Court ruling, but his irritation over America’s perceived offensive in what Russia regards as its zone of influence can be easily sensed in his sharp criticism of “dictatorial” U.S. foreign policy.
Putin’s tough remarks came on a December 3-4 visit to a former Cold War ally, India, where he and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh issued a joint call for greater cooperation in stabilizing and rebuilding Iraq.
According to Putin, unilateralism has increased the risk that weapons of mass destruction might fall into the hands of terrorists and would thus stoke regional conflicts. “Even if dictatorship is packaged in beautiful pseudo-democratic phrasing, it will not be able to solve systemic problems,” Putin said. “It may even make them worse.”
Putin did not name the United States, but clearly had Washington in mind when he noted that policies “based on the barrack-room principles of a unipolar world appear to be extremely dangerous” (Reuters, December 4).
The Kremlin appears determined to thwart what it sees as America’s attempts to retain its global hegemony. Obviously seeking to promote the idea of a multipolar world, the Russian-Indian declaration points to the necessity of giving a boost to the trilateral cooperation among Russia, India, and China. As some Indian media outlets reported, a trilateral Russian-Indian-Chinese summit might take place next year.
True, the Kremlin’s efforts to counter America’s military and economic might by building an alternative center of power in Southeast Asia are not news: Russia’s former Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov was obsessed with the idea of strategic alliance among Moscow, New Delhi, and Beijing. But some political analysts seem to believe that it would be unwise to underestimate Ankara’s potential to become Russia’s strategic partner as well.
According to a number of Russian experts, today’s Turkey is at an historic crossroads. The crucial issue of its membership in the European Union is still unresolved; in fact, the opposition to Turkey’s European bid among the elites and public in several countries of the wealthy bloc is growing. At the same time, within Turkey itself the observers note a significant rise in anti-American sentiments, generated mostly by the ongoing Iraq war, which was opposed by the overwhelming majority of Turks. As one Russian commentator argues, “All this provides Russia with a unique chance for a [geopolitical] gamble in the region, which until very recently appeared inaccessible” (Kommersant, December 6).
Thus, Putin’s visits to India and Turkey may help the embattled Kremlin repair its damaged foreign policy. Declarations on strategic cooperation signed in New Delhi and Ankara will likely sooth some of Moscow’s bitterness over strategic defeats in what it claims to be its historical turf: the former Soviet lands.