President Vladimir Putin responded promptly to the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris with a telegram to French President François Hollande that condemned the “barbaric nature of terrorism, which challenges human civilization” and called for unity in the struggle against this “evil” (Kremlin.ru, November 14). These words sounded similar to the statement of United States President Barack Obama, who decried the “attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share” (Rbc.ru, November 14). Yet, there was one key difference between the two—Obama’s clear reference to common values, which his Russian counterpart notably avoided. This difference came into even sharper focus when compared with the condolences sent by German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Newsru.com, November 14). Specifically, Merkel expressed confidence in the strength of common values, and this is exactly what Putin cannot say because he does not share these values. Instead, the Russian president continues to call for a broad, international anti-terrorist coalition, which is indeed necessary. But a Russia that curtails domestic freedoms and wages a “hybrid war” against Ukraine is unlikely to be fully accepted as a reliable partner in such a coalition.
As Parisians woke up on Saturday morning to their city locked down under an emergency situation, in Vienna, the second round of multilateral talks on managing the Syrian crisis opened. After five hours of deliberations, the Vienna meeting registered another small step forward, with the participants agreeing to reach out to the Syrian opposition (except for the al-Nusra Front, which is defined as a terrorist group) and aiming to progress toward an 18-month-long political transition (Rbc.ru, Kommersant, November 14). The diplomats in Vienna expressed no specific intention to engage Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in this transition process, whereas Moscow continued to send ambivalent signals about its readiness to help dismantle his regime (RIA Novosti, November 11). Indeed, Russia’s military intervention in Syria has hit a dead end; further air strikes appear to be making little difference on the ground, while the risks of technical setbacks and terrorist attacks keep rising (Slon.ru, November 9). Defeating the so-called Islamic State has never been a key goal of this force projection, but now Moscow has to face the prospect of a sharply rising threat of terrorist attacks, particularly in the smoldering North Caucasus (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 11).
Putin appears eager to elaborate on Russia’s experience dealing with such threats at the G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey (November 15–16), and he likely assumes that the shift in focus of the agenda from climate change to the Syrian calamity is to his advantage (Kommersant, November 13). He opted—rather abruptly—not to travel to Manila for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit later this week, and he held a short meeting with Obama on the sidelines of the G20 to discuss the military operations in Syria (RIA Novosti, November 13; Moskovsky Komsomolets, November 12; TASS, November 15). The Russian president obviously wants to harvest the maximum dividend from the presumed position of strength that Russia has built in Syria and to convince the reluctant and confused West to finally turn the page on the “frozen” Ukraine conflict and recognize Russia as an “indispensable” power on the international stage (Kasparov.ru, November 14). The renewed ceasefire violations in Donbas are supposed to emphasize his argument, but instead they provide a reminder of Russia’s engagement in conflict manipulation (Newsru.com, November 15).
Obama cannot ignore the fact that Putin spent most of last week in meetings with his top brass, fine-tuning guidelines for upgrading Russia’s military capabilities, focusing in particular on modernizing its strategic nuclear capabilities (see EDM, November 12). The awkwardly organized “leak” about a long-range autonomous torpedo capable of inflicting massive damage to coastal areas by radioactive contamination is particularly disturbing because this weapon system is designed as a high-tech “dirty bomb” (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, November 13). Putin appears firmly set to turning nuclear weapons to usable instruments of policy, and the test launch of two Bulava missiles from the newly-built submarine Vladimir Monomakh during the middle of the G20 summit exemplified this aim (Newsru.com, November 15). He has succeeded in convincing the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to take Russia’s nuclear ambitions seriously, but this will hardly push them to embrace Russia as a partner in the struggle against terrorism (Carnegie.ru, November 11). Nor are Moscow’s plans to further increase the expenditures on Russian strategic forces compatible with the realities of Russia’s economic decline (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, November 13).
By its very nature, the G20 institution measures its member states’ abilities to contribute to managing problems of global importance, including terrorism, by focusing on their economic performance. And in this regard, the Russian Federation has graduated from a disappointment to a troublemaker (Forbes.ru, November 12). Russia cannot hope that a new spike in oil prices will deliver a miraculous solution to its malignant problems (Polit.ru, November 14). It also cannot acknowledge the level of damage inflicted on its international reputation by the revelation of the state-sponsored doping program that resulted in the International Association of Athletics Federations suspending Russian athletes from track and field competitions (Slon.ru, November 12). The government promises Russia’s recession will end by mid-2016. But it hardly believes its own budget guidelines (drawn on the basis of oil prices close to $50 per barrel) and is now mostly just going through the motions prescribed by the Kremlin (Gazeta.ru, November 13). The surprisingly determined protest of truck drivers against a new tax on the use of federal roads may be the first sign of failure in the government trying to “talk” the economy out of the crisis (Novaya Gazeta, November 12).
The country’s eroding economic foundations enfeeble Putin’s foreign policy, prompting him to act pre-emptively and without any extensive assessments of the consequences. This leaves both Russia’s Western adversaries and its Chinese (as well as Kazakhstani or Turkish) partners puzzled about the Kremlin’s next “master-strike.” The usually reliable diplomatic policy of engagement does not work with a maverick Russia, because Putin no longer cares about respect and feels free to break any commitment that requires constraint. His opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky warns that joint efforts against terrorism, useful as they may seem, will not be able to overcome inherent differences over values that now divide Russia and the West (Moscow Echo, November 14). A new quality of US leadership is thus needed to forge Western unity to end the Syrian war as well as to resolve the Ukraine crisis—both prerequisites for helping a future post-Putin Russia eventually return to the West’s good graces.