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Russia’s Putin continues to rule the roost

Muhammad Zamir | April 02, 2018 00:00:00

As expected, Russian President Vladimir Putin has demonstrated to the rest of the world that his following has continued to grow in his country.

Having joined the KGB in 1975, he became head of the FSB Security Service, its equivalent, in 1998. In 1999, he became President Boris Yeltsin's Prime Minister and then succeeded him as President in March 2000. He was re-elected as President in 2004 and then returned for another term in 2012. However, this time it was for six years. The latest Russian poll on March 18 has led to his re-election as President (for the fourth time) for another six years till 2024. This was the seventh presidential election since the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991.

Two communists, two ultra-nationalists, a socialite, a businessman and a liberal were Putin's competitors in the race this year. Nearly 70 per cent of the 108.9 million registered voters from 85 national entities (republics, regions and autonomous regions) and 1.875 million Russians living in 145 countries abroad exercised their right to vote.

With the outcome of the elections widely perceived to be in his favour, the incumbent President led a rather modest campaign. The supporters of his possible main challenger, Alexei Navalny, who was disqualified by the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) in December, 2017, called for election boycott. There was thus a possibility of a low voter turnout. This persuaded the authorities and Putin to scramble and make serious efforts to mobilise the electorate.

The exit polls results released by Russian Central Election Commission after the vote indicated, as expected, that Putin had received nearly 76.5 per cent of the votes. Pavel Grudinin of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) received 11.8 per cent and he was followed by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, with 4.6 per cent. The five other candidates received about 1.0 per cent each. That included Citizens' Initiative Party head Ksenia Sobchak, the daughter of Putin's former boss and St Petersburg's one time Mayor Anatoly Sobchak (who helped Yeltsin in ousting Gorbachev).

Putin through his fourth term will now be his country's longest-serving leader since Soviet era's Joseph Stalin.

One thing is quite clear. Putin through his re-election has demonstrated himself as a nationalist leader who has restored to Russia its pride and stability. This perception has led to analysts from Europe, North America and the Far East to start speculating about the next moves from the reinvigorated Putin Administration within the international geo-strategic paradigm.

Nathan Hodge and Angela Dewan of the CNN have pointed out that Russia in its own way is changing the world. In the last four years, Russia has annexed Crimea from Ukraine, allegedly meddled in the US Presidential electoral process and helped turn the tide of the Syrian war in President Bashar al-Assad's favour.

The Russian President is currently facing a diplomatic crisis with the UK. Both countries have expelled dozens of diplomats each over a nerve agent attack against a former Russian spy allegedly carried out by Russian agents in Salisbury, England. The implications of the allegation by British authorities and UK's top defence officials that Russia was "ripping up the international rulebook" have continued to grow. By March 28, the anti-Russian response had led to 25 other countries (including USA, Canada and Australia) and the NATO taking similar decisions to expel Russian diplomatic staff. Some have even indicated that countries should boycott the upcoming FIFA World Cup scheduled to be held later this year in Russia. Nevertheless, these reactions appear to have increased Putin's stature and his political support at home.

President Vladimir Putin's actions in the recent past is clearly indicating that he not only has a growing appetite for power beyond Russia's borders but also feels that Russia can fill the void in parts of the world where the US once wielded influence.

Strategic analysts have selected the following areas where Russia is expected to enhance its presence throughout the globe -

(a) Enhancing its presence in cyber space through the breach of cybersecurity. It may be noted that in addition to the USA, several other European nations, including United Kingdom, France and Germany, have been accusing Russia of cyber-meddling for some time, particularly in influencing voting in these countries. One may recall British Prime Minister's stern warning to Russia in November last year, accusing it of trying to "weaponise information" to disrupt the world order. It is alleged that some Russian troll components posted dozens of pro-Brexit messages on the day the UK held a referendum and voted to leave the European Union (EU). Germany has also accused Russia of propagating fake news to stir far-right sentiments in the country and in June last year it passed a law to tackle fake news, forcing online platforms to remove false reports within 24 hours or face hefty fines.

(b) Russian President Putin has not backed off during the last four years from underlining his country's growing military power. In the recent past Russian warplanes have bombed territory, and mercenaries and advisers on the ground have supported offensives to prop up Syrian President Assad. Russia's firepower has helped turn the war around in Assad's favour and has made the country a game-changing player in the complex multi-sided conflict. Russia has also increased its military influence in Libya a country. Russian forces have held joint military drills with Egypt on Russian soil, with plans to host the exercises this year in Egypt. Russia has annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. It was a move that led to sanctions and condemnation from the West. However, this stand-off appears to have clearly boosted Russia's image as a major world power.

(c) There is also the dimension of arms sales. Russia is the second-biggest exporter of arms behind the US, and it is now finding markets, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), in countries that traditionally bought American-made weapons, especially in Asia and the Middle East. India, the world's largest importer of major arms between 2013 and 2017 has purchased 62 per cent of its arms from Russia during this period. Russia is selling arms to countries in Southeast Asia like Indonesia and Myanmar. It has signed agreements for arms exports to the Philippines.

(d) All these elements are directed towards countering US influence in geo-politics. Russia is expected to try to forge new alliances. Last year Russia's Finance Ministry came to the aid of crisis-hit Venezuela with a deal to restructure its sovereign debt. This made Moscow the primary foreign backer of President Nicolas Maduro. This burgeoning relationship with Venezuela has given Russia an important economic and political foothold in Latin America. Closer to home, Russia is hoping to use its historical and cultural ties in the Balkans. It is trying to boost ties with eastern European nations that are not NATO members, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Macedonia. Kremlin is keen to use these links to counter NATO's expansion in the region.

(e) Russia might now also try to use its oil production to boost ties with countries in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. This would be comparatively easy as many former Soviet nations in Eastern Europe rely heavily on Russian oil and gas to fuel their economies. That includes Poland, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary and Lithuania. They are supposedly trying to diversify their energy sources to reduce their dependence on Russia but that does not appear to be possible in the near future. Russia, in the meantime, is also trying to enhance its presence in Iraq. In that country Russian state oil company Rosneft has signed contracts to gain control of the main oil pipeline in the Kurdistan region, thereby boosting Russia's influence there and creating anxiety within USA. It has also teamed up with Saudi Arabia - another country with an oil-dependent economy - and agreed to extend oil production cuts to buoy global prices.

(f) Russia is increasing diplomatic contacts in the Middle East. This has been evident not only in the context of Saudi Arabia but is also true with regard to Iran, a longtime adversary of the US. This country is now allied with Russia on the ground in Syria and also appears to be sharing approaches with regard to Afghanistan and the Taliban. At the same time Putin has hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Elsewhere in the region, Russia is expected to expand its contacts with Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Besides, Russia has become closer to Turkey because of the Syrian crisis.

Last but not least, Russia and China have been extending and deepening their areas of cooperation. In view of such developments, strategic analysts believe that in the near future the world may change where the evolving paradigm will be more China-Russia centric, with US influence diminishing.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.

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