The fate of this man concerns us. He is the leader of an important country. He is also in fact no longer very far away from us. He resides in our region and shuffles the cards and pulls the strings. This man is concerned about his image and that of his country. He believes in the importance of linking these two images together and controlling them with an iron grip. Perhaps this explains why he kicked off his brief Middle East tour from Syria’s Homeimem Russian airbase, not the capital Damascus.
We would not be exaggerating in saying that the whole world is monitoring this man’s career.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the Kremlin fell in his hands. At the time, the Russian federation was on the verge of collapse. The Red Army was reminiscing about its glory days. Several observers predicted that Russia’s role will become limited and it will become strictly concerned with its internal crises. Some Russian counties were even beginning to prepare for the formation of militias in order to reap the spoils of these crises. The corruption barons in Moscow were dreaming of continuing this situation and turning the country’s president into a puppet in their hands.
Everyone, however, miscalculated.
The Russian operations room succeeded in bringing about a leader to the Kremlin. The operations room orchestrated the vengeance campaign against those who sought to portray Russia as weak. Vladimir Putin adeptly managed to steer this campaign.
There has been no other example of this scenario among the world powers. It is true that the recent Communist Part National Congress Chinese consolidated the power of the Chinese president. It is also true that he had already had an iron grip on the country before the Congress made him even more powerful.
Putin, on the other hand, had to jump from a sinking ship. He announced that he will run in next year’s presidential elections as if he were talking about taking an electoral stroll. He will likely not face any competition because the opposition does not have a convincing platform or a charismatic leader. The elections will therefore become a form of referendum on the policies of the president, who decided to run as an independent candidate as if he were the nation’s father and unifier.
There is something more important and dangerous than all of this. Putin’s experience is a reminder that the world only respects the powerful. It respects them and forgives and forgets their mistakes. It then seeks to dance with them and respect their interests.
In order to be strong on the foreign scene, you must be strong on the internal one. With a mixture of strength and skill, Putin managed to seize control of the military-security institution. He reined in the remnants of the collapsed Soviet Union, from parties, regional governors and the wealthy.
He realized early on the importance of controlling the media and the image he needed to promote. This is how many were convinced that this man could save the country from fragmentation and the army from division. He saved the dignity of Russia and the ordinary Russians.
In return, he obtained the ability to control all aspects of the country, whether in his role as president or prime minister, who was waiting his turn to return to the Kremlin.
This is how the Russian leader acquired what no western leader has managed: The ability to take the decision to intervene militarily in the affairs of another country without fearing parliamentary objection or a damning newspaper headline. He has no problem called the fear of public opinion because the operations room has taken over the sentiment of the majority, the pens of journalists and the minds of analysts. This was demonstrated in Russia’s actions towards Ukraine and became even more evident with Moscow’s military intervention in Syria.
He did what others failed to do. Can we, for example, imagine a French president using his country’s veto power at the Security Council in defending a regime that is accused of using chemical weapons? Can a French president take such a decision without fearing the ire of the French public? Will the media go easy on him? Will the political parties remain silent?
Strength and skill, combined with the ability to benefit the most from the errors of adversaries and their weak policies. He declared war on ISIS, but in reality, he ordered debilitating strikes against the Syrian opposition, which the terror group viewed as its main enemy. He reversed balances of power on the ground and then announced victory against terrorism, ignoring that the international coalition had played a greater role than Russia in defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Addressing others from a position of power. This is what Russia did with Turkey after a Turkish pilot dared to shoot down a Russian jet. Moscow considered the development a blow to Russia and the czar. It responded by reining in Ankara. This is how Russian-Iranian-Turkish summits became a regular scene and more influential than international resolutions in determining Syria’s future. This is how the Sochi meetings started to compete with and obstruct the Geneva talks. This all ended with Turkey, which has the second largest army in NATO, requesting that it be protected by Russian missiles. It is clear that the czar is relishing infiltrating NATO, which, after the Soviet collapse, had come too close to Russia’s borders.
The Syrian opposition found itself in a difficult situation. Whoever does not take the Moscow road will not be able to reap anything. Moscow does not hide its intentions. Lower your expectations and turn to the Russian solution. The Kurds, who fought ISIS with American weapons, are now being trained on how to take the road leading to the Russian capital.
Major questions remain. Will the powerful Putin be able to obtain from Iran the conditions needed to launch a political solution in Syria? Will Tehran be able to tolerate a serious and effective political solution? Or does it prefer to prolong the conflict if it was difficult to return to the pre-war Syria? Will the powerful Putin be able to persuade Bashar Assad to make necessary concessions to launch a political solution that would convince the West to contribute in reconstructing Syria and returning the refugees? Will the Syrian regime be able to tolerate such a reality?
Russia has managed to restore strong policies as a means to address the world. The policies of reversing equations and imposing alternative ones. Putin’s latest tour to Syria, Egypt and Turkey implies that the policies of strength have paid off. It is remarkable that the czar does not have a strong economy that would be capable of funding long-term wars or reconstructing countries torn apart by them. Partners are needed, which consequently puts limits on the policies of strength.
This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat.
Ghassan Charbel is the Editor-in-Chief of London-based Al Sharq al-Awsat newspaper. Ghassan’s Twitter handle is @GhasanCharbel.