Safe to say that no-one, but no-one has had a better 2016 than Vladimir Putin. What an annus mirabilis it has been for him. Somehow, Russia got away with directly interfering in the US election process, such that a friendly oligarch that Putin can do business with – ie someone he can flatter, cajole and induce – is about to take up residence in the White House, rather than a genuine rival. Why, Putin has been eating the Russian versions of Donald Trump for breakfast for the past 15 years.
As the satirist Stephen Colbert mused last week, who would have thought that the US election would be won by a Washington outsider who no one really thought had a serious chance of ending up running the country: namely, Vladimir Putin.
Foreign policy is working out nicely elsewhere for the Russian leader, too. Who talks about Ukraine, or Crimea these days – except to poke fun at Putin’s enemies in Kiev or to lament the betrayal of the Maidan Revolution?
The Middle East is falling into line, too. In Syria, Russia’s sudden entry into the civil war in September 2015 seems about to culminate in the fall of east Aleppo to the forces of Russia’s ally, Bashar al-Assad.
Huh. So much for the Americans, and their feeble claims that the Syrian civil war couldn’t be won militarily. At a terrible cost in civilian lives, Putin proved otherwise in 2016, such that any final Syrian resolution will be on his and Assad’s terms. Europe? That’s lining up particularly nicely for Moscow, too. The right wing’s chosen candidate Francois Fillon looks set to become the next President of France, and Fillon has a long track record of sympathy for Putin’s foreign policy adventures.
Fillon has consistently backed Russia in Syria since 2012, saying Moscow could be instrumental in resolving the conflict and refraining from calling for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s removal until the Islamic State is defeated. In 2013, Fillon was a guest of the Valdai forum, which Putin and his foreign policy elite use to communicate Russia’s policy views to Western experts; apart from calling for cooperation in Syria, he expressed hope that Europe would soon abolish short-term visas for Russia — something that’s not even on the agenda today.
Fillon has also been fervently against economic sanctions against Russia following Putin’s Crimean escapade. In April, Fillon welcomed a French parliament resolution that called for lifting the sanctions. He called them “inept and strategically devastating for our farmers” as well as counterproductive. Russia, along with France, is involved in fighting the Islamic State, he reasoned.
The UK has sidelined itself by its Brexit decision, which has been another free gift to Putin. That leaves only Germany’s Angela Merkel as an obstacle in Europe, and she will be facing a tough fight for re-election next year. Of course, there are well-meaning people who think that the West’s election of Putin-friendly leaders will actually reduce the prospect of a major shooting war. Unfortunately, there is another way of looking at it. As Noah Smith of Bloomberg News recently pointed out, the world’s three Great Powers – the US, Russia, and China – are now headed by individuals of a remarkably similar personality type, and with the same penchant for centralising power in their own hands:
With the election of Trump, all three of the Great Powers now have a strongman at the helm. Xi Jinping’s power is unprecedented since the days of Mao, Putin’s since the days of Stalin, and Trump’s… well, we’ll see. Strongmen are decisive and can get thing done, but they’re also unpredictable. A strongman may be for peace one day and war the next. What’s more, strongmen tend to have big egos. Trump is friends with Putin today, but what happens if the two alpha males get into a pissing contest?
What’s more, the number of flashpoints between the Great Powers is increasing. Russia has rattled its sabre at the NATO-protected Baltics, and China has steadily ratcheted up its attempts to claim the whole South China Sea.
Let’s hope that Putin quickly learns how to read the traffic signals at the Trump White House, because they’re likely to go from red to green to red again quite rapidly. During the election campaign for instance, Trump all but gave Putin the green light to invade the Baltic states, by indicating that NATO’s mutual protection obligations should apply in future only on a pay-for-play basis, according to whether the countries facing invasion had been sufficiently uncritical of US foreign policy in the past. If Putin did take those signals at face value and invade Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania, he would find himself in exactly the sort of alpha male contest that a less erratic US leader might have avoided. Ditto if China misreads the extent of the newly declared US isolationism, when it comes to flexing its ownership rights in the South China Sea. Basically… like the bully in the bar, Trump is all but inviting his rivals to test his mettle.
That test will happen, soon enough. So lets enjoy 2016, while we can. Next year may be quite hard on the nerves. BTW, in the unlikely event in France that the ultra-rightist Marine Le Pen beats Francois Fillon, Putin can feel pretty relaxed about that outcome, too. Here, from Le Monde a year ago, are the two Le Pens, daughter and father, expressing their joint appreciation of the Russian leader.
Keep that in mind at Christmas time. There are people out there who think that the rise of Vladimir Putin offers the world a chance for peace in our time.
Footnote to Fidel
As Havana gears itself up for the funeral of Fidel Castro, a predictable barrage of abuse – Castro was a blood soaked tyrant, another socialist failure akin to Pol Pot, Stalin and Mao etc – has been coming from Castro’s critics in Miami, and from elsewhere on the right. Such comparisons are absurd. Castro’s human rights record. while hardly perfect, bears no comparison with a Pol Pot, whom incidentally New Zealand and the US chose to support in the UN even after his crimes were well known and even after Vietnam had invaded Cambodia and toppled the tyrant. At the time, the West was keen to curry favour with Pol Pot’s main remaining backer, China.
In addition, the scale of Castro’s excesses were no match for the hideous human rights abuses committed by the Washington-blessed champions of capitalism in the immediate region – i.e. dictators such as Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Videla in Argentina, Pinochet in Chile, Duvalier in Haiti, Rios Montt in Guatemala, Somoza in Nicaragua, Duarte in El Salvador etc etc. Yesterday, the London Review of Books carried an interesting commentary on the scale of Castro’s human rights abuses:
Amnesty International counted 216 completed death sentences in Cuba between Castro’s coming to power and 1987; the figure may be much higher when extrajudicial killings are included. It is however a clean-hands fantasy to think that political actors could simply have implemented a liberal democracy in Cuba at the time of the revolution against Batista’s kleptocracy, which John F. Kennedy credited with 20,000 political murders during the dictatorship of 1952-59. Castro began as a land reformer, but various forces, US policy not least among them, pushed him towards ideological complicity with Marxism and geopolitical complicity with Moscow. Non-alignment on the Bandung model was hardly an option.
‘It is no wonder,’ Kennedy said in a presidential campaign speech in October 1960, ‘that during these years of American indifference’ – under Batista – ‘the Cuban people began to doubt the sincerity of our dedication to democracy.’ Elsewhere in the speech Kennedy lambasted the Eisenhower administration’s record on Cuba, noting that at the start of 1959, US companies owned 40 per cent of Cuban sugar plantations, 80 per cent of the country’s utilities and most of its cattle ranches, mines and oil businesses. US arms funnelled to Batista were ‘justified in the name of hemispheric defence’, Kennedy said, but ‘their only real use was to crush the dictator’s opposition.’
As the LRB concludes, if the US is really interested in bringing imprisonment without trial (and the torture of those in custody) to an end on the island of Cuba, it should close its prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Song For Putin
As parodies go, this one is a bit OTT, but it does an amusing enough job of extolling the range of Vladimir Vladimirovich’s exceptional abilities. Russia still needs him, even though he’s 64.
And if you want to know where some of those parodic elements came from, here’s the Red Army Choir gradually working its way into a full blown Cossack table dancing frenzy: