When Putin Talks, It Is Worth Listening
On foreign-policy questions, many Russians stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their leader.
Vladimir Putin gave another of his end-of-year press conferences last week—nationally televised events consisting of an always-curious combination of Q&A, opinionating, offhand banter, observations on a wide range of domestic and international affairs, and the Russian president’s appraisal of his own record. This was his 13th such outing and weighed in at three hours and 42 minutes. Putin again had some interesting things to say, though one could scarcely glean this from Western press reports, and certainly not from the US media. Beelzebub is never deserving of serious attention.
Russians I respect have sometimes told me that, while some features of Putin’s domestic performance merit criticism, on the foreign-policy side their support is more or less shoulder-to-shoulder with Putin. I view the distinction as important; it seems to go some way to explaining Putin’s standing in opinion polls, which hovers consistently above 80 percent. He had plenty to say last Thursday on Russian politics, the economy, the domestic opposition, and other such matters. I will leave those questions aside as the business of Russians: It is when Putin speaks on global affairs that it is everyone’s business.
Here are four topics Putin addressed last Thursday that are worth thinking about. I draw from a pared-down list:
Syria. Putin did not distinguish between the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, which is in keeping with Russia’s policy since it intervened at the Assad government’s request two years ago. But he spoke about post–conflict challenges, notably. While most terrorist groups have been defeated, he said, there is a mop-up phase to complete. Russian forces have begun to withdraw, thus, but some will remain. This is what one would have expected. He had no comment on the Pentagon’s recent announcement that US security forces will remain on Syrian soil indefinitely.
The interesting part of Putin’s remarks on Syria, at least to me, concerned Russia’s responsibilities now that the war is over. He talked about the welfare of Syrians as essential to preventing new terrorist outbreaks, about resettling refugees, about working with foreign partners, about the peace process. “All the parties involved should resist the temptation to take advantage of short-term political goals,” Putin asserted. This is a healthy handful of tasks on which Russia now must prove out. Especially for those who supported Moscow’s defense of Damascus to prevent Syria’s collapse into another Libya or Iraq, it is time to watch the Russians. This will be their most importance performance since, by way of the Syria conflict, they have assumed a more influential role in the region.
Ukraine. Putin’s remarks on the state of affairs in Ukraine are, of course, wholly at odds with what Washington puts out on the subject. But they are not at odds with reality: Washington is. As Putin calmly noted, the number-one obstacle to a settlement in Ukraine is, as it has been for three years come next February, the profoundly corrupt government installed in Kiev after the American-cultivated coup in 2014. I say three years next February because it was then the settlement framework known as Minsk II (for the city where it was negotiated and signed) was put in place.
Those terms remain Putin’s point of reference. They appear to remain the European Union’s, too. Washington, which the Europeans and Russia excluded from the Minsk talks for the wisest of reasons, does not seem to have a point of reference, busy as it is pretending there is progress on the corruption front and that Kiev is not dependent on a frightening collection of militias, many of them led by neo–Nazi fanatics. These groups still present the threat of a massacre in the eastern provinces, as Putin reminded his audience. He spoke with notable ease of Russian assistance in those regions, suggesting this can end when they are capable of self-defense.
We would do well to understand where the force of inertia lies in Ukraine. This was Putin’s topic. A settlement in Ukraine remains possible via the framework fixed three years ago. Let us not forget this. Moscow has not deviated from Minsk II—another point worth noting. The spoilers are in Kiev, and behind them are those in Washington, which continues to encourage the irresponsible behavior of the Poroshenko government and other Ukrainian elites.
The Sino–Russian alliance. The growing bond between Moscow and Beijing is no secret, but it is interesting that Putin noted it as prominently he did. “I have full confidence that cooperation with China is beyond any political agenda,” he said. “We’ll remain strategic partners for a long period of time.” In this he singled out a couple of high-profile agreements just reached: a natural-gas project providing for Russian shipments to China via an Arctic port now under construction and a high-speed-transit corridor that will connect China to Russia and, through Russia, China to Europe.
Did someone say “One Belt and One Road”? Putin did, actually. He welcomed it as consonant with Russia’s development strategy and for the place it assigns Russia as a bridge between East and West. Belt and Road’s momentum, unmistakable now, seems to gain speed almost by the day.
One other point worth noting in this line: Putin appeared to echo Xi Jinping’s speech at the 19th Communist Party Congress two months ago, in which the Chinese president suggested that the mainland’s political economy—the old “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” a phrase I have never much liked—should be seen as a model for other developing nations to emulate. This is “post–Western world” rhetoric, and there is a lot to it. But one waits for the Russian leader to square this thought with his remark that there is no political agenda attaching to the Sino–Russian alliance. It sounds to me as if there is.
The Eurasian Economic Union. It has long been common to scoff at Putin’s EAEU efforts, precisely in the way many commentators—though fewer as time goes by—now deride China’s Belt and Road Initiative. First they laugh at you, later on you win, as Gandhi is said to have observed (but apparently did not). The guts of the EAEU, apart from the Russian Federation, are two Central Asian republics (Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) and two other former Soviet republics (Armenia and Belarus). Curious timing: The day before Putin’s press conference, Iranian media quoted a senior trade official in Tehran as saying Iran will formally join the union next February. If this comes to be, the EAEU will gain considerably in substance and profile.
Putin rolled out some technocratic statistics in response to questions about the EAEU’s progress. The aggregate GDP growth rate among members, for instance, now exceeds Russia’s. (Russian growth in 2017 will come in at 1.7 percent, a rebound from contractions of 2.8 percent and 0.2 percent in 2015 and 2016 respectively.) But there is a more salient way to view the EAEU’s fortunes: It is hard to imagine a more congruent fit with China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
All worth noting, even if one must read beyond the American press to find virtually any of it.
I wish all readers contented, spirit-lifting holidays. I would say holidays from Russiagate rubbish, but let us not get carried away with year-end dreams. As to the new year, may we all keep our eyes wide open, finding light amid all the darkness.