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Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Putin the Terrible

Why the Russian president’s savior tactics are going to fail

This picture made available on July 26, 2013 shows Russian President Vladimir Putin fishing in the Tyva region on July 20, 2013 during his vacation (AFP Photo/Ria-Novosti/Alexey Druzhinin)

Russian President Vladimir Putin must answer this: How can his country, with an economy the size Italy’s, restore the glory it once enjoyed as the Soviet empire? The answer is that it cannot, which means Putin is either clueless or careless. The alternative world system that Moscow’s new tsar is trying to construct is too feeble, and even if it grows teeth, Russia would be the junior partner next to juggernaut China.

 

Putin has yet to come to terms with the downfall of the Soviet Union. Maybe he thinks its collapse could have been avoided had it not been for an organized Western effort to bring Russia to its knees. Putin’s masquerading as the hero who will reverse Russia’s humiliation is the cornerstone of his self-perceived power, especially since his engineered comeback to the presidency in 2012.

 

To restore Russian glory, Putin thinks he can reconstruct the Soviet Union, or at least most of it. Thus, he has strong-armed smaller neighbors and former Soviet republics – like Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – to join his Eurasian Economic Union, and has clashed with, occupied or sponsored separatist movements in former Soviet states that have refused to concede, such as Ukraine and Georgia.

 

But USSR 2.0 is nowhere close to its original version, which at its peak was the world’s second largest economy and enjoyed a larger sphere of trade and influence. Vox quoted JP Morgan’s Michael Cembalest as saying that “the bulk of economic power in the former communist bloc now isn’t Putin’s to command, and often is aligned against him.”

 

Perhaps Putin thinks he can replace the Soviet empire’s lost muscle with a new anti-Western bloc, BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), whose first step was the creation of a bank – conceived and structured along the lines of the World Bank – to doll out loans to governments that need them, with no conditions attached.

 

With 25% of the world’s economy and 40% of its population, BRICS can theoretically compete with the West. Yet that does not mean BRICS will behave like Putin or support his bullying. And while it is true that China has, together with Russia, vetoed many UN Security Council resolutions on Syria, Beijing parted ways with Moscow over Crimea.

 

In fact, Russia’s fellow BRICS members have yet to recognize its annexation of Crimea, which won the endorsement of only 14 nations, including pariah states like Syria, Sudan, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela, in addition to the few former Soviet republics that Moscow dominates.

 

Since first taking office in 2000, Putin has overseen one of Russia’s most impressive GDP expansions, from $196 billion to $2 trillion today. Yet Putin has overestimated his newfound strength.

 

Unlike China’s economic success, driven by exports and investments, Russia’s rise – like that of Brazil – has been dependent on the sale of fossil fuel and other natural resources. When the West started slamming sanctions on Putin, he feared that Europe might find an alternative gas supplier, which would result in a decline in Moscow’s revenue.

 

Believing that he could disentangle his economy from the West, Putin turned East and signed a deal with China. But realizing that Moscow was desperate, Beijing got a reduced price. This means that if Europe dumps him, Putin will still sell his fossil fuel, but for less cash, which he now desperately needs to fund the army he is modernizing and the lands he is conquering.

 

The Russia-China deal suggests that Beijing will not come to Putin’s rescue in his showdown with the West, but would rather exploit his weaknesses.

 

In the end, the bigger role Putin assumes the more Western sanctions will increase and the less revenue he will have. The Russian Treasury will start juggling its finances to make ends meet, and Moscow has already announced new taxes.

 

Putin has no strategy. He has not thought his new world order through. Russia’s $2 trillion economy cannot possibly beat the US, the EU and Japan, whose combined economies are worth $41 trillion. While BRICS enjoys irritating the West, they will not go as far as rocking the current order that has given them, especially China, their newfound wealth.

 

“The imperial horn has been sounded. But we are a Third World kleptocracy hiding behind imperial symbols. There are no resources for a true imperial revival,” Russian analyst Stanislav Belkovsky told The New Yorker.

 

With his populism and oil money, Putin may have made Russians feel better, but he is certainly taking them in the wrong direction. Sanctions might not have immediate effects, but they will bite soon, and they will make Putin evermore belligerent the face of subsequent Russian pain.

 

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai. He tweets @hahussain.

Putin has yet to come to terms with the downfall of the Soviet Union. (AFP Photo/Ria-Novosti/Alexey Druzhinin)

The Russia-China deal suggests that Beijing will not come to Putin’s rescue in his showdown with the West, but would rather exploit his weaknesses."