The recent public demonstrations in Russia reminiscent of the Arab Spring are confusing international public opinion, Putin is still seen as the most powerful presidential candidate on the eve of the elections. As he blames the opposition groups for cooperating with the Western world, he successfully turns his public speeches into shows of force. In one public speech held on February 23 in Luzhniki stadium, he managed to stir up more than 130 thousand people like a rock star with a brief ten minute speech. During this event, Putin did not hesitate to use rhetoric involving Russian identity associated with nationalism. However, it should be noted that his nationalist statements were not based on ethnicity but a kind of Western marginalization. Moreover, sometimes these statements go further as Putin asserts that Russia is in a war and victory will be theirs no matter what happens.
It is clearly seen that while Putin is defending those assertive claims, he relies on his detailed new program. During the election period, Putin has avoided coming face to face with rivals and pursued different tactics, the most debated of which has been his weekly articles. In these articles, Putin generally presents his vision for the future and notably mentions his goals of promoting Russia as a globally-accepted superpower, an image of a strong Russia which he has been trying to build for more than twelve years.
In the 2008 Georgian war, Russia clearly gave its message regarding the strategies it desires to be followed in its Near Abroad. In this new period, Putin is preparing to put Russia one step further in the balance of global security. Actually, Putin’s articles somehow give signals that Russia will take a position in which it aims not only to be a powerful actor in its region but also in global affairs. Despite parliamentary and presidential elections, and debates regarding the effects of election politics on U.S. foreign policy, the reality that foreign policy considerations still maintain their significance in the Russian political agenda can be considered one of the indicators of this claim. In this regard, taking a closer look into the Kremlin’s agenda, the serious Russian focus on the Syrian issue is of notably critical importance for both Turkey and the Western world.
What are Russian (Putin’s) desires in Syria?
As Russia did not blockade Libya and chose to abstain from U.N. policies toward it, recently it seems quite discomforted regarding NATO’s initiatives in overthrowing its regime. Moreover Putin’s statement -as being a leader close to the Orthodox Church-, which associates those ongoing operations with the Crusades, certainly indicates how much importance Russia gives to this issue. Although Moscow has not yet entirely put an end to the Libyan case, and considering the reality that the Syrian issue has dramatically become prominent, it is clearly seen that Russia has decided to take a different position on the Syrian issue compared to past events. Since the Assad regime is regarded as one of its allies from the Soviet period in the Middle East, Putin decided to support Assad and, thereby, has obtained a decisive position in the Syrian case. In this respect, Putin’s stance is seen as an important barrier in the West, where the elections are at the top of the agenda like in France and the US.
The reason for this can be explained with the increasingly active Russian stance on Syria through its statements and proactive diplomacy. Despite the ongoing efforts to reach a compromise in the U.N. Security Council, as was seen in the Libya case Russia with China vetoed the U.N. decision related to Syria, and Moscow clearly demonstrated that it does not support such solutions similar to Libya in the Syrian case. As Russia supports that gradual transformation will be more effective in Syria, in which tens of people are killed every day, it also openly indicates its opposition regarding any possible Western intervention. Actually, this is clearly emphasized in Putin’s article “Russia and the Changing World” (Rossiya i Menyayushiysya Mir) published in Moskovskiye Novosti on February 27. While criticizing the soft power and increasing role of information media, on the other hand, he concentrated on the consequences of any coalition generated outside the U.N. Furthermore, he also continues with the claims that such an attempt will bring new debates on international security and U.N. legitimacy.
Following these statements, Putin touches upon an interesting point. As seen in the Iraq case and Arab Spring, once again, the interests of Russian companies are damaged with the new order and their contractual rights have become invalid. And those gaps are filled by the companies which took roles in the change. Also, he went further and said that Russia will not remain an audience to this systemic transformation and will look after its economic benefits in developing relations with newly-formed or forming governments.
Actually, although Putin is generally focusing on the international security balances throughout his article, his emphasis on Russian economic interests clearly reveals the Russian hesitations. Since the Kremlin does not desire to be bypassed from the new world order, it tries to guarantee some certain circumstances by taking into consideration the past experiences. First of all, while Russia wants to protect its contractual rights in Libya, Iraq and some other countries shifting their governments, at the same time it strongly emphasizes that the Kremlin also has certain rights in the new system. It is unknown that Russia, confident and having found the adequate strength in order to change something in Syria, also gives signals to the Western world regarding it being ready to negotiate on some issues. Actually, it is necessary to set up the agenda after March 4 in order to see how this situation will evolve. However, it should be noted that those Russian attitudes may possibly bring some certain handicaps. Russian insistence on supporting the Assad regime against the opposition paves ways for possibilities of similar disappointing scenarios, as was experienced in the Iraq case.
Hasan Selim Özertem
USAK - Center for Energy Security Studies
Note: This piece was translated by Betül Buke Karaçin