Russia seeks to restore its global standing with foreign adventures
Published 15/10/2016 | 02:30
On the sidelines of a recent conference in Brussels, I asked a Russian diplomat to explain their strategy in Libya, where Moscow has been cosying up to a former Gaddafi-era general with strongman ambitions who opposes a UN-backed unity government.
His response was Kremlin boilerplate, claiming a "balanced" policy dovetailing with national interests and national defence.
This is a standard line trotted out by Russian officials when it comes to foreign policy under president Vladimir Putin. But Putin's way of dealing with the world has jangled nerves in many quarters as he seeks to tip regional balances of power in Europe, the Middle East and beyond to Moscow's advantage. He is by far the longest-serving leader in the G20, and Putin's confrontational approach to diplomacy - accompanied by a military iron fist in Ukraine and Syria - have won him fans at home while causing alarm abroad, particularly in Europe and the US.
In an address to Russia's parliament in 2005, Putin famously declared the collapse of the Soviet Union as a "major geopolitical disaster" and it is this notion - regret for what was lost and frustration over what he and his compatriots see as the subsequent loss of international standing for Moscow - that drives his thinking on foreign policy.
Russia's annexation of Crimea, and its war in the Donbas region of Ukraine, have resurrected security anxieties in Europe not seen since the Balkan conflicts in the 1990s.
Moscow's military intervention in Syria - including devastating air strikes on rebel-held eastern Aleppo which have killed many civilians - shifted the momentum in favour of its long-standing ally in Damascus Bashar al-Assad, though his regime is still mired in a vicious, multi-faceted five-year-old war. Putin's power play in the wider Middle East region - not just limited to Syria - has upended Western calculations and prompted concerns in Washington and Brussels.
In Egypt, where the Sisi regime has been increasingly at odds with allies like the US, Moscow has stepped in offering military cooperation. Kremlin officials announced this month that Russia is hoping to re-open its Cold War-era naval base on the Mediterranean coastline near the border with Libya. Some European diplomats believe Russia's meddling next door in Libya - where it has discussed weapons supplies with forces opposed to a unity government despite the UN arms embargo - is aimed at maintaining enough instability there to ensure the country remains enough of a headache for Europe to the north but without it affecting the wider region. Putin was personally incensed by the NATO-led intervention that helped rebels topple Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011.
It is no coincidence that the growing challenge of Russia's muscular policies overseas is happening at a time when the US-led post-Cold War order has weakened, with the undermining of institutions that have helped underpin it, like the EU and NATO.
It is no surprise either that Moscow has funded populist anti-EU political parties and movements across Europe, including the National Front in France, which is experiencing a surge in support.
Putin's geopolitical adventures have proved popular with Russians still smarting over the shrinking of Moscow's global clout along with the demise of the Soviet Union.
Since the Crimea takeover, public support for Putin and his foreign policy has remained high. One poll shows Putin's approval rating has hovered between 80 to 90pc since 2014. Another survey found almost two out of five Russians believe the government's primary foreign policy goal should be to bring back the superpower status it had during the Soviet era.
The same research showed that respondents believed the biggest obstacle to Russia becoming an even more powerful global player was resistance from the US and EU, a claim repeatedly echoed in Russian state media.
Putin's presidential term extends until 2018 and many observers argue that if he is to maintain his momentum on the international stage - outmanoeuvring Western rivals on certain issues to applause back in Russia - and consolidate recent gains, it must be bolstered by better economic strategy at home.
Moscow oversees an economy that is struggling because the existing model is considered by many to be no longer fit for purpose. Without a more robust economic foundation, the gap between what Russia aspires to and what is capable of being - both domestically and internationally - will grow. Others argue that Putin's style of hard-headed diplomacy mixed with military clout, while bringing him some successes in the short-term, may prove more difficult to pursue in the long-term in a multi-polar world shaped by more fluid and unpredictable dynamics than in the past.
The fact Putin is expected to be re-elected in two years' time says much about his ability to play the domestic scene. Whether he can continue to do so on the world stage is another question.