26 November 2015

Putin's Emergency Politics

NOV. 23, 2015

Much has changed for Vladimir Putin since the terror attacks in Paris. The trope that aggressions in Crimea and Ukraine show that he is more of a threat to the West than ISIS was useful to President Obama’s critics, but that’s now older than yesterday’s news. Given the joint French-Russian airstrikes against ISIS in Syria last week, Russia is now a de facto Western ally. Putin the pariah has a shot at redemption, or so it might seem.

Just weeks ago, François Hollande declared that the Russian leader was “not our ally in Syria,” and warned — albeit obliquely — that Mr. Putin should refrain from propping up President Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime. In August, France canceled the delivery of two Mistral helicopter carriers to Russia, selling them to Egypt instead. But the tables have turned. This week, the French president plans trips to Moscow and Washington to foster Russian-American cooperation in stamping out the Islamic State.

Mr. Putin is a proven master at manipulating emergencies — real or imagined — to get what he wants. Witness how he consolidated his hold on power by skillfully distorting the nature of his domestic critics and has used the threat of extremism to re-centralize Russia’s political system. In essence, he applies his own brand of emergency politics to keeping the country in a near-constant state of alarm; security takes precedence over political, legal and marketplace freedoms.

Until the Paris attacks, the prospects for Mr. Putin’s Middle East adventure were not looking good. Russia was bolstering the Assad regime’s air force, but neither the Syrian Army nor its Iranian allies were showing any real gains against rebels on the ground, and ISIS was not a primary target. Then, on Oct. 31, a Russian passenger jet carrying tourists home from Egypt went down in the Sinai Peninsula. It looked like Mr. Putin had led his nation into a deadly quagmire, and his innocent countrymen were paying the price.

Though the Russians must have known that a bomb had destroyed the jetliner, the Kremlin stopped short of officially declaring a terrorist attack, thereby freeing Mr. Putin from a political obligation to retaliate. Instead, in a difficult logistical operation, some 70,000 Russian tourists were evacuated from Egypt, their luggage sent home separately by military transport. The details were broadcast in news reports that were surreal even by the state-run media’s standards; no political context or reasons for the evacuation were given. Since no one seemed to know the reasons for the crash, the reactions of the victims’ families were generally subdued.

Then, on Thursday, Nov. 12, ISIS suicide bombers struck a Beirut marketplace, killing 43 people. The next day, Paris was hit. Mr. Putin seized the initiative. On Sunday, Nov. 15, he used the G-20 summit meeting in Antalya, Turkey, to meet privately with Mr. Obama and apparently signaled his willingness to compromise on Mr. Assad’s place in the future of Syria. On Monday, Nov. 16, he and Mr. Hollande agreed to coordinated airstrikes against ISIS. On Tuesday, Nov. 17, he announced that the Russian airliner had in fact been downed by a terrorist’s bomb, and vowed vengeance.

“We will search for them everywhere, no matter where they are hiding,” he declared. “We will find them in any place on the planet and will punish them.” As he spoke, Russian missiles were already being launched from the Mediterranean into the ISIS stronghold in Raqqa.

To Putin watchers, the performance was familiar. In September 1999, then-Prime Minister Putin launched a war against Chechen separatists with a vow that the Kremlin would “pursue terrorists everywhere, and if we catch them in the toilet, we’ll ice them in the toilet.”

That war defined Mr. Putin as a leader. His goal, then in Chechnya, now in Syria, is to tame a restive region by giving a free hand to a loyal warlord, no matter how brutal, who will crush all jihadists, separatists and rivals in order to maintain stability.

Just as he rose to Russian leadership on a wave of crisis 16 years ago, Mr. Putin is now re-entering the world stage at a moment when France and its West European neighbors are in a state of high alert. (As the journalist Leonid Bershidsky has pointed out, he probably considers himself to be more expert in crushing terrorism than any other head of state in the world today.) Because of Moscow’s expanded stake in the Middle East conflict, no significant decisions regarding the West’s response to ISIS are now possible without the Kremlin. The United States must take into account Franco-Russian cooperation. President Obama, who on Sunday called upon Mr. Putin to align himself with the Western coalition against ISIS, was set to meet on Tuesday with Mr. Hollande, who, in turn, will hold talks with the Russian leader on Thursday in Moscow.

It would be well for both men to remember that Mr. Putin moves fast. By jumping to help Mr. Hollande he subtly undermines trans-Atlantic ties. The Crimean crisis is long gone and Ukraine is rapidly becoming a distant subject. When it comes up again before Russian and Western diplomats, the Kremlin will surely push to link Russia’s partnership on Syria with Western concessions on Ukraine.

Though it’s difficult to guess what concessions Mr. Putin might demand in exchange for Russian cooperation against ISIS, it is quite clear what he wants on Ukraine: A redrawn constitution, elections that install a pro-Moscow government, and a settlement of the fighting that will keep the country in the Kremlin’s orbit.

Mr. Putin is once more at the top of his game at a time when an anxious West is on high alert. He has made clear his stance: stronger border controls, strict limits to refugee flows, and a general consolidation of the administrative power of the state. These policies have many supporters in Europe. Are we to witness a convergence of sorts? What’s the next move in this international game of three-dimensional chess? Ask Mr. Obama, or Mr. Hollande.

Maxim Trudolyubov is editor-at-large at the business newspaper Vedomosti, writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute, and is a Richard von Weizsäcker fellow at the Bosch Academy in Berlin.

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