Russian President Vladimir Putin had an exceptionally successful year, with Moscow making geostrategic gains in Syria, Europe as well as the US in 2016.What a difference a year makes. Back in 2015, things weren’t looking particularly good for Russia. With the country suffering from falling oil prices and sanctions for the annexation of Crimea, the Russian bear appeared subdued. But as 2016 winds down, Moscow has emerged as a roaring force on the international stage after a year that saw the political winds, from the US to Syria, blowing in the Kremlin’s favour.
"Right now, Vladimir Putin must be uncorking the champagne," said Julien Nocetti, a Russia expert at the Paris-based IFRI (Institut Français des Relations Internationales). “Last year, the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in the Ukraine had pushed the country towards international isolation." But Russia today has made a clean break from the uncertainties of 2015. From Aleppo to Washington DC, to London, Brussels and Rome, Putin managed to advance his geopolitical goals across the world through fair means or foul.
Syrian crisis puts Ukraine on backburner
Syria has been the stage on which Putin has projected Russia’s raw military power this year. Although the Russian military intervention in Syria began last year, it was not until 2016 that Moscow really proved its might in the Middle East, dealing a crushing blow to Western interests in the region.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has compared the “liberation of Aleppo” to both the birth of Jesus Christ and the revelations to the Prophet Mohammed, a major event that has changed the course of history. To achieve this historic moment, Assad has his unfailing supporter, Putin, to thank for handing a decisive victory to the Damascus-Moscow-Tehran axis.
But the Syrian victory has not just entrenched Russia’s influence in the region, bolstering its presence in Tartus and granting Russian naval ships access to the Mediterranean. It has also altered the dynamic of Moscow’s involvement in other areas, especially Eastern Europe.
“The strategy worked cynically well: we no longer talked about Ukraine even though a conflict is still raging in the east of the country," said Nocetti.
Russian interventionism in Syria has allowed Russia to become "unavoidable in the region, it has turned into the go-to power in the Middle East, and has demonstrated that it can protect the autocratic regimes under threat," said Tatiana Jean, head of the Russia-NIS Center at IFRI. According to Jean, Moscow, by making "extremely clever use of the concept of limited war [in a restricted space and with limited use of troops], has achieved major political gains".
The biggest gain has been to force an opening for Russia’s engagement with the US following the isolation measures imposed after the Crimean annexation. "The Middle East has played an instrumental role in Russian diplomacy by allowing Moscow to re-establish a direct relationship with Washington," said Nocetti. "Syria has provided a favorable planetary alignment for the Russian leader: he has taken advantage of the US will to disengage and European indecision in this matter."
Russian hand in the US election
But Russia’s renewed access to the US has been the result of a mix of long-term strategising, pure chance and the seizing of opportunities when they arise.
In the run-up to the November 8 US presidential election, Donald Trump’s positions on a host of issues were inconsistent, to say the least. But his opinion of Putin never wavered.
Expressing surprise over the Republican Party’s endorsement of Trump’s foreign policy positions, US President Barack Obama detailed the inconsistencies underlining the “bromance” between Trump and Putin.
“This is somebody, the former head of the KGB, who is responsible for crushing democracy in Russia, muzzling the press, throwing political dissidents in jail, countering American efforts to expand freedom at every turn; is currently making decisions that’s leading to a slaughter in Syria…And a big chunk of the Republican Party, which prided itself during the Reagan era and for decades that followed as being the bulwark against Russian influence, now suddenly is embracing him,” said Obama in an interview with NPR (National Public Radio) on Friday, December 16.
Russian cyber attacks during the 2016 US presidential campaign have put a spotlight on Putin’s global domination goals. The CIA has judged the Russian hacking of emails from the Democratic National Committee as designed to favour Trump against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the election, according to reports.
Senators from both parties have called for a congressional enquiry. But if it does officially emerge that the Kremlin intervened to favour a particular US presidential candidate, it would mark a "new stage" in Russia’s cyber activities, according to Nocetti.
"Hacking the Democratic Party servers and releasing emails via WikiLeaks to harm Hillary Clinton marks a transition from traditional cyber-espionage activities to informational operations for political purposes," he explained.
But whether or not the Kremlin intervened to favour a Trump victory over Clinton, Putin had already scored a win, according to Nocetti. The Russians have already created "a monstrous mess in the US, which has put Moscow at the centre of all the discussions", he noted.
From Brexit to 5-Star Movement, Putin has his way
Suspicions of Russian meddling in foreign elections have begun to reach Europe. Russian cyber-propaganda played a key role in favouring the pro-Kremlin 5-Star Movement during the constitutional referendum in Italy, which resulted in the resignation of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, according to investigative reports.
The 5-Star Movement has built a sprawling network of fake news sites spreading pro-Russian conspiracy theories and attacks on politicians such as Renzi, according to reports.
But the Kremlin didn’t always have to resort to subterfuge to get the kind of results it wanted in Western Europe. The Brexit vote earlier this year proved that many European electors want exactly what Putin wants: a weaker EU. Britain’s looming departure has left the bloc bereft of one of its most vocal anti-Kremlin member nations while strengthening the power of Putin allies such as UKIP leader, Nigel Farage.
French candidates cozy up to Putin
France is also not immune to Putin’s expanding influence. With the 2017 presidential election dominating the French political discourse, there are fears that Russian cyber-propaganda could be wielded to favour a pro-Kremlin candidate.
With barely four months to go before the first round of the election in April 2017, two leading French presidential candidates are staunch Putin allies.
Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme right National Front, has long been a staunch Russophile and her party is literally indebted to Russia. Following the anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic party’s failure to receive loans from French banks, the National Front received a 9 million euro loan from a Russian bank. Putin’s strongman nationalism coupled with his tough stance on Islamic extremism are a perfect fit for Le Pen, who is widely predicted to make it to the second round of the French presidential election.
More unusual though are the close links between Le Pen’s challenger from the centrist Les Républicains party and Putin. When François Fillon beat Alain Juppé in last month’s conservative primary, Putin in effect secured another friendly European political candidate.
Unlike Juppé, who has routinely criticised Russian excesses in Syria, Fillon has backed Russia’s position on Syria since 2012 and has vociferously criticised the sanctions imposed on Russia following the Crimean annexation.
But while there are a number of European politicians like Fillon who express fears about the consequences of slapping sanctions on Russia, Moscow has not as yet managed to get rid of the sanctions. That remains the biggest thorn in Russia’s foot and removing the sanctions will be one of Moscow’s main goals in 2017, according to Nocetti. That, according to the Paris-based Russian expert, is one of the main reasons Moscow played a shadowy role in the 2016 US election, pushing for a Trump victory. With the appointment of former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson as the next US secretary of state, Putin is in for a little caviar in addition to champagne.