Russian foreign policy took an unexpected turn and suffered a serious setback last week when President Vladimir Putin suggested sending to Washington a delegation headed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, which was firmly turned down by the United States government. The initiative was poorly prepared, and the fruits of Putin’s recent meeting with US President Barack Obama after their respective addresses to the United Nations General Assembly turned out to be quite sour; thus, it was hard to see any point in resuming this bilateral dialogue (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 16). Nevertheless, Putin declared he could not understand this refusal to talk, while Medvedev announced he was deeply offended and called the US’s position “weak” and “stupid” (RIA Novosti, October 16). The assumption that Washington would not dare reject Putin’s proposal betrays the Kremlin’s misunderstanding of the United States’ stance on the Syrian war—and also a delusion that Russia has regained a position of strength.
The point of departure for Putin’s intervention in Syria was the conclusion that Western policies for managing this disaster were in total confusion: as the US failed to defeat the Islamic State (IS) by its air campaign, while the European Union is overwhelmed by the inflow of refugees. Exploiting this confusion appeared easy because the moderate opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was in disarray, so close air support provided by a few squadrons of Russian jets should have made an offensive by government forces toward Aleppo swift and decisive (Gazeta.ru, October 14). However, Moscow apparently did not take into proper account the anger that such joint military operations undertaken by Russia and Iran would inspire within the Arab world. Therefore, Saudi Defense Minister Prince Mohammad bin Salman took time last week to explain these consequences to Putin (Newsru.com, October 12). Moscow also seemingly underestimated the anxiety and anger in Turkey about its bold intervention, and certainly did not expect that it could prompt Turkey and the EU to try to reach an agreement on the refugee problem (Kommersant, October 16).
The US and the EU still do not have anything resembling a plan for bringing the civil war in Syria to an end, but every new day of Russian bombing strengthens the West’s conviction that rebuilding this devastated country can only start with the removal of the al-Assad regime. Putin has failed to convince the US and the EU to accept that the Russian intervention has turned the Syrian dictator into a necessary part of the solution for the catastrophe, for which al-Assad is ultimately responsible (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, October 12). The Russian leader has also failed, more broadly, to turn the Syrian intervention into a lever that would reverse the West’s position on the Ukraine conflict and make it accept the current ceasefire as a solution to this deadlocked problem (Slon.ru, October 16). Russia’s role in the Ukraine conflict was illuminated yet again last week: As the Dutch-led investigation of the downing of the MH17 flight on July 17, 2014, released its official report, on October 13, confirming the plane was struck by a Russian BUK surface-to-air missile, the Almaz-Antey corporation (the producer of the BUK system) attempted to counter the conclusions by presenting its own report. Yet, the Almaz-Antey presentation did nothing to help Russia escape international accusations of responsibility for that tragedy (Forbes.ru, October 15).
Meanwhile, Putin’s geopolitical maneuvering is undercut by the deepening recession in Russia’s economy, which he tries to talk away by asserting that the “peak of the crisis” has already passed (Novaya Gazeta, October 16). The government has revised downwards its forecast for the contraction six times this year, and will likely have to continue this search for the bottom as the decline continues into next year (Rbc.ru, October 16). Manipulations of macro-statistics can camouflage the dynamics of the downfall, but there is no way around the fact that the state budget is shrinking fast, and the social programs suffer the most (Moscow Echo, October 16). The hopes for a strong recovery of oil prices are fading and giving way to fears that Saudi Arabia and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) are pushing Russia away from its traditional European market (Meduza.io, October 16). Even the politically privileged Gazprom has sunk deep enough into inefficiency and negative profitability that the government appears ready to consider a plan for splitting up this unhealthy monopoly (Newsru.com, October 16).
This sustained economic decline has done nothing to diminish the predatory appetites of Putin’s “particular friends,” even as their shady financial schemes for laundering money in respectable European banks are increasingly targeted by US investigations (Rbc.ru, October 16). Alexei Navalny, the defiant blogger and opposition leader, has boldly used these facts as extra ammunition in his relentless anti-corruption campaign, which has chipped away at the reputation of such heavy-weights in Putin’s inner circle as Vladimir Yakunin, the former boss of Russian Railroads (Navalny.com, October 16). The public’s response to this exposure of dirty fortunes remains muted, but it is increasingly mixed with popular worries about falling incomes. According to opinion polls, 70 percent believe the economic crisis will last more than a year; and of those, 23 percent think that it could continue for many years (Levada.ru, October 12). Passive acceptance, rather than discontent, is the typical reaction to this gloomy perspective, but the authorities are driven by the need to pre-empt protests by delivering propaganda-amplified “victories” (Gazeta.ru, October 13).
Syria is presently the main source of good news about the “spectacular” feats of the Russian Air Force, since Ukraine has been reduced to a stale propaganda show. But telegenic bombings can sustain mass enthusiasm for only so long, while the risk of accidents and casualties is high and growing. The task of rescuing the al-Assad regime is open-ended, and there is no plan to escape the quagmire of this intervention in order to project military power to another conflict zone and score a fresh “victory” (Carnegie.ru, October 16). Each of the Kremlin’s “proactive” moves since the annexation of Crimea has gradually turned into a heavy-maintenance blunder, and Putin cannot break out of this latest entanglement by raising the stakes or by showing readiness to take the kinds of risks that his opponents would consider unacceptable. The sinking economy compels him to experiment with the military instruments of politics, but a fast-shrinking resource base turns his smart strikes into bluffs, which are now being called. High-level dialogue makes little sense because Putin cannot be talked out of this conflict-exploitation pattern, but not talking involves the risk of intensifying his desperation.