SO you wake up a hybernating bear and that’s what you get: Vladimir Putin! When Boris Yeltsin announced his resignation as President of the Russian Federation in December 2000 and handed power to his favoured successor Vladimir Putin, the world seemed to breathe a sigh of relief in expectation of a new political dispensation which would usher in badly needed economic and political reforms as well as a new approach to international relations.
For more than a decade before his surprise resignation, Boris Yeltsin had dazzled the political world with his erratic behaviour – emerging from periodic bouts of ill health, lassitude and purported drinking.
So how has Russia changed since the initial appointment and subsequent election of Vladimir Putin, a former K.G.B official and spy?
When Mr. Putin took over the presidency, Russia was a friendly enough bear – a misguided calculation initially based on the pledges of good governance and political reform that he had made. However as Mr. Putin started to consolidate power, and his political philosophy began to be rooted in the soil of nationalism and political revisionism, his imperial ambitions and hideous affinities towards authoritarianism were slowly unmasked. He started to use the media and the country’s mineral wealth to promote and spread anti-EU and anti-West propaganda. Most appallingly, he and his current Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who also served as President from 2008 to 2012, have shamelessly used the political process to manoeuvre between the positions of President and Prime Minister – in the process bringing both high offices into disrepute.
Now, with Russia engaging in a dangerous game of sabre-rattling and political revanchism, it is becoming clear that history has taught its current leadership nothing. Mr. Putin appears to have facilitated his country’s slide to political hysteria and paranoia – where its actions threaten world peace, bully its neighbours and obstruct the work of the United Nations – apparently seeing everything through the lens of victory and defeat. In Russia itself, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and freedom of the press have all been blatantly violated by a corrupt government with an illusionary claim of “superpower status” – which continues to depend dangerously on scarce mineral resources rather than diversifying the petro-economy. To be certain, economically, Russia is not a great power, as Mr. Putin’s actions suggest. In fact, Russian GDP lies in between that of Italy and Spain.
It’s been two years since Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, in direct violation of international law and Ukraine’s territorial integrity – accelerating the unwinding of the current international order and conjuring up a geopolitical awakening at the heart of the EU. Since then, the region has become a black hole for human rights, where those who oppose the Russian occupation face repression, torture and persecution.
Six years earlier, Mr Putin’s Red Army had invaded Georgia resulting in a five-day conflict centered on South Ossetia and Abkhazia – two “breakaway provinces” supported by Russia – which claimed the lives of more than 1000 people, mostly civilians.
Meanwhile, Moldova, Romania and a few other states that border the Russian Republic – all feel threatened by Vladimir Putin’s erratic behaviour and ruthless tactics. “Russia has resorted to force [in order] to redesign its borders and all these serious things are happening next to us that we can’t ignore,” Romanian President Klaus Iohannis declared earlier this year in Bucharest. The Week UK reports that “In May, British fighter jets intercepted three Russian military transport aircraft — which could carry troops or heavy equipment — approaching NATO member Estonia and refusing to answer hails. British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon described the incident as an ‘act of Russian aggression’. These provocative actions have occurred at the same time as Russian President Vladimir Putin has been modernizing and upgrading his military forces.”
With the backing of Russia, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has been able to stay in power despite charges of mass murder and torture as well as international calls for him to step down. Syria’s civil war is the worst humanitarian crisis of our time, where half the country’s pre-war population – more than 11 million people – have been killed or forced to flee their homes. According to the United Nations, it will take $7.7 billion to meet the urgent needs of the most vulnerable Syrians in 2016.
With the complicity and obstructionism of Russia in Syria, the current crisis has produced the most dangerous situation in and around Europe since the end of the Cold War. And the apparent unwillingness of Russia to use its influence with Assad to end this humanitarian catastrophe is further evidence of Mr. Putin’s recalcitrance and cold calculation in reasserting Russia’s power and “imagined” greatness, irrespective of the ensuing collateral damage. Clearly under Vladimir Putin, Russia has lost its political morals.
In January of this year, a British judge, Robert Owen, said that President Vladimir Putin was ‘probably’ a murderer for protecting (perhaps even aiding and abetting) two former Russian intelligence officers, who in a London hotel, poisoned Alexander Litvinenko, himself a former Russian intelligence officer who had defected to the UK nearly a decade ago.
So how do you deal with a man who seemed to have renounced political logic and international law? According to Wolfgang Ischinger, a former state secretary in the German Foreign Ministry and current Chairman of the Munich Security Conference: “Russia’s aggressive foreign policy is an expression of weakness rather than strength, but we should still treat the country as a significant power. Russia is currently not very interested in dialogue, but we should flood it with offers of dialogue and engagement. Russia seeks to be unpredictable, but we should try all we can to make our relationship more stable, transparent and predictable. Russia has violated international law, but we should be demonstratively observant of international agreements and accords. Russia is acting like an adversary of the West, but we should still constantly look for ways to engage constructively.”
Although I fully agree with the advice provided by Mr. Ischinger, still America and the EU need to cooperate more strategically and develop a broader policy framework for managing Russia-NATO and Russia-West relations. In the absence of such a judicious framework, Vladimir Putin and his ideology will only threaten world peace and throw civilization several decades back.
For comments, write to ClementSoulage@hotmail.de – Clement Wulf-Soulage is a Management Economist, Published Author and Former University Lecturer.