Whether you like him or not, you can’t but admit that Vladimir Putin is a master tactician. When it comes to short and medium-term political coups none can match his success often achieved with minimum cost to himself.
Putin’s latest success is the so-called Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea, signed by all five littoral states last week, breaking a 22-year long log-jam. The convention could turn the world’s largest lake into an aero-naval military base for Russia and give Moscow the final word in exploiting and marketing the basin’s immense energy reserves.
Only 24 hours after the convention was signed, Moscow announced that work had started on a huge new base in Dagestan, one of Russia’s “federal” republics in the Caucasus. The new base will supplement older facilities that already exist in Astrakhan at the northern tip of the Caspian. Together, they will give Russia overwhelming military superiority for operations in Trans-Caucasia, the Middle East, Central Asia and the Black Sea rim.
But that is not all. Three of the littoral states, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan badly wanted the convention to provide a legal veneer for the juicy contracts they have already signed with American and European oil giants, not to mention other big contracts being negotiated. The obstacle to all that was the Republic in Iran which, for two decades, had argued that the Caspian was a lake under joint Irano-Russian sovereignty based on three treaties signed between the two in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Both Boris Yeltsin Dmitri and Medvedev, Putin’s predecessors as president, failed to make the Tehran mullahs budge through formal negotiations.
Putin broke the log-jam by ignoring the official Iranian government, that is to say the President and the Foreign Ministry, and in 2015 going direct to the “Supreme Guide” for a deal. The deal was that Putin will help Iran keep Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad more or less in power in Damascus in exchange for which Iran would remove its veto on the Caspian Convention. In just over two years, Putin delivered his part of the bargain, at least for the time being. It was now Iran’s turn to deliver on Khamenei’s promise of dropping Iran’s historic claims on the Caspian.
The beauty of the operation is that the convention was launched and completed within what looks like a perfectly legal framework and with the consent of Russia’s neighbors in the CaspianAmir Taheri
The beauty of the operation is that the convention was launched and completed within what looks like a perfectly legal framework and with the consent of Russia’s neighbors in the Caspian.
Always looking for an extra something, Putin persuaded Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to let Russia have a share of their oil as a reward for “the taming of the Iranians.”
But that wasn’t all either. Putin persuaded the mullahs to hand Iran’s biggest energy contract so far to state-owned Russian firms. That is truly historic as it marks the end of over a century of Iranian refusal to let Russia, in its various epiphanies as Tsarist and/or Soviet Empire, a bite of the Iranian oil apple.
All done nice and legal, as is Putin’s method.
Incursion into Georgia
We saw the same method in August 2008 when Putin did a bit of mise-en-scene by staging a supposed Georgian invasion of Russia as an excuse for counter-attacks that led to the occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, some 25 per cent of Georgian territory. Russia, Putin claimed, had acted in self-defense, and the mise-en-scene was so convincing that inspectors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) could not counter it in an effective way.
All nice and legal.
Later, Putin annexed South Ossetia after holding a popular referendum, again nice and legal. As for Abkhazia, the local government unanimously agreed to let Russian troops stay there and pretty much run things in a nice and legal way.
The same nice and legal way was used to annex Crimea where a popular referendum was held under Russia’s benevolent auspices.
The same nice and legal method was used to allow Russian “volunteers” to operate in eastern Ukraine, complete with their tanks, missile-launchers and fighter jets in defense of Russian-speaking dissidents whose human rights were violated by “European fascists” in Kiev.
Putin has also used his nice and legal method on the domestic scene. He didn’t change the Russian Constitution to allow himself retaining the presidency for as long as he could. Instead, he enlisted his protégé Medvedev to act as a stop-gap president for one term after which the boss would return to the Kremlin.
Russian oligarchs have had a taste of that method.
Putin didn’t use extra-legal means to make them cough out part of their illegally acquired fortunes. Instead, he brought them together, gave them a nice dinner of caviar and borscht, and showed them the very legal dossiers detailing their violation of every Russian law imaginable. The oligarchs were then politely invited to choose between sharing their fortunes and going to jail.
Making himself indispensable has been Putin’s chief asset in achieving tactical successes. The mullahs of Tehran need him as a protector against the big bad wolf in Washington.
Bashar al-Assad owes his life to the Russian master. Benjamin Netanyahu needs him to keep the Iranians and their Lebanese, Afghan and Pakistani mercenaries as far away from Israeli ceasefire line as possible.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan needs Putin as a metaphor to back his fantasies about “new alliances’ away from NATO and the US.
The Caspian littoral state chiefs need him if only to make sure he wouldn’t pull the carpet from under their feet. Despite their huffing-and-puffing, the Europeans also need Putin to continue the flow of cheap energy that keeps their economies afloat.
With all that one could say: So far, so good!
That ill-omened phrase, however, cannot determine what the longer term might bring. History is full of instances of tactical victories ending in strategic defeats.
Putin’s rank in the KGB was that of a lieutenant colonel. And, as military historians know, tactical victories are often the work of colonels while strategic victory can only come from generals.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.