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The Week In Russia: Hunger Games: Putin’s Big Appetite For A Seat At The Table

Vladimir Putin (file photo)
Vladimir Putin (file photo)

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Tasty Morsels

Vladimir Putin is sometimes portrayed as ravenous: a hungry wolf on the ragged edge of Europe, about to descend diagonally down the map and devour what’s in his path.

But throughout his years in power, and particularly over the last few, some of Russia’s actions abroad suggest that despite a prodigious appetite, he’s a picky eater. Or at least a wary one, usually trying not to bite off more than he can chew -- though not always succeeding.

He can also be something of a scavenger, nosing around for what he might call a “tasty morsel” -- words he used when he basically blamed the West for the Beslan school attack in 2004 -- and jumping when he sees an opening but backing off, if only to circle and wait for another chance when he senses that the price may be too high.

Parts of that approach can be seen in Syria, where Russia backed President Bashar al-Assad from the beginning of his war against rebels in 2011 and then stepped up its support in 2015, launching air strikes and deploying ground forces in a move that may have saved Assad from defeat and bolstered Moscow’s clout in the Middle East.

In Ukraine, Putin sent in troops, staged a referendum, and snaffled up Crimea when opportunity and motive aligned after the downfall of a Moscow-friendly president in Kyiv.

But after fomenting separatism and backing forces that seized control of parts of two provinces on the other side of its border, Moscow and the militants stopped short of seeking to push westward and establish control over or take a huge swath of Ukrainian territory that Putin briefly referred to as Novorossia, or “New Russia.”

A woman walks past graffiti depicting a Novorossiya (New Russia) flag.
A woman walks past graffiti depicting a Novorossiya (New Russia) flag.

Too Far Gone?

Even so, he may have taken too big a bite out of Ukraine. Russia’s economy has been harmed by Western sanctions imposed as a result of Russia’s actions there, and the Kremlin has pushed the prospects of a return to good relations with what Putin has called a “brotherly” nation into the future by years if not decades or more.

Meanwhile, polls show that the popularity surge he secured by taking Crimea has subsided and more Russians are questioning whether the move was a good thing for their country.

Further abroad, Putin has brought his appetite for greater global influence to bear in countries including, but not limited to, crisis-hit Venezuela, Libya, and Sudan.

In some cases, one chief goal is to ensure Russia gets a seat at the table, or retains one, and that the United States doesn’t monopolize the conversation.

Venezuela, where its dispatch of military personnel has led to U.S. demands that it “get out” of the Latin American country, is “ill-suited” to even limited military operations in support of Russia’s interests, Moscow-based commentator Vladimir Frolov wrote in an opinion article in The Moscow Times.

Instead, he wrote, “Moscow is…engaged in great power resolve signaling — making it clear to Washington that it no longer has freedom to take military action in any part of the world against Russian objections.”

‘Art Of The Possible’

In other words, it seems, Moscow is trying to use a small force as a part of an effort to do as much as it thinks it can -- but no more -- in the showdown in Venezuela, where the United States has recognized Juan Guiado, leader of the opposition to Russian-backed leader Nicolas Maduro as the legitimate president.

On the world stage these days, Bloomberg Opinion columnist Leonid Bershidsky wrote in an April 8 article that Russia’s foreign policy is “an exercise in the art of the possible: Take a gamble on those who are themselves willing to take a gamble on Moscow’s aggressiveness and the murky economic benefits it can offer.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) shakes hands with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro at the Kremlin in 2015.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) shakes hands with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro at the Kremlin in 2015.

The results are mixed.

In Venezuela, Maduro has held on so far. Not so in Sudan, where autocratic leader Omar al-Bashir was overthrown by the military on April 11 and the future remained uncertain as demonstrators -- at first jubilant -- called for the establishment of a civilian government.

In power in Sudan since before the Soviet Union collapsed, Bashir voiced high praise for “the role that [Russia] plays in preparing Sudanese military personnel” and thanked Putin for “the experience Russia shares with our country” in the areas of arms trade and military cooperation when they met in Russia in July for the second time in eight months.

Adaptable You

Russia made it clear that it will seek to retain its influence in Sudan -- where “members of Russian private security companies are working,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in January -- as part of what observers say is a continuing effort by Moscow to stamp a larger footprint in Africa.

As events unfolded in Sudan and broadcasts showed a nightmare scenario for Putin -- tens of thousands of protesters in the streets of the capital -- his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the Kremlin was “monitoring this situation very carefully" and hoping that “whatever the outcome, Russian-Sudanese relations" will be a priority for Khartoum.

We’ll see.

In Libya, meanwhile, Russia has been seeking to gain or regain influence and economic opportunities eight years after the ouster and death of Muammar Qaddafi, which followed NATO-nation air strikes made possible by a UN resolution that Putin -- with Russia’s decision to abstain, credited to Dmitry Medvedev, the “tandem” partner he had steered into the presidency as a placeholder -- likened to “medieval calls for crusades.”

Hedging Bets

Russia’s practical interest in Libya may be accompanied by hunger for revenge of sorts. Whatever the motives, Moscow has given substantial support to Khalifa Haftar, an eastern-based commander whose forces control much of the massive country and this month launched a campaign to seize the capital, Tripoli, where the UN-backed government is based.

Libyan opposition leader Khalifa Haftar (left) meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow in 2017.
Libyan opposition leader Khalifa Haftar (left) meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow in 2017.

The “strong pushback” against Haftar’s attempt to take Tripoli “endangers one of...Putin’s risky bets,” Bershidsky wrote.

But Russia has hedged its bets, maintaining “connections with all sides of the political spectrum” and “engaging with different elements of the Libyan system,” Tim Eaton, a research fellow with Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa program, told RFE/RL on April 10.

As a result, Eaton said, it looks like Russia “will be able to adapt” to developments “on the ground.”

In putting out multiple tendrils in Libya and declining to augment its backing for Haftar with public declarations of support, Russia may be hoping to avoid accusations of hypocrisy -- like those it often levels against Washington and the West -- given that its more customary role is champion of the longstanding government, regardless of that government’s image or actions.

On a more practical level, helping one side while huddling with others could increase the probability that Russia will -- going forward -- have a meaningful say in shaping the situation in Libya even as it declares, as it always does, that the future must be decided by Libyans alone.

Russia has “sought to capitalize on opportunities where it's found them” rather than “committing serious resources,” Eaton told RFE/RL. “And I think sometimes Libya is viewed as a place where Russia can have some leverage, but without having to commit too much in order to exert that leverage.”

Investment Climate Change?

As for the Kremlin’s actions at home, “art” seems like the wrong word for the suppression of dissent, say, or politically-charged criminal cases. But Putin seems sometimes to be guided by a sense of the possible within Russia’s borders.

Few Russia-watchers, whether they are watching from inside or out, would be likely not to see the Kremlin’s hand in the release of theater director Kirill Serebrennikov from house arrest or the transfer of American investor Michael Calvey from jail to house arrest.

When things like that happen in such quick succession, it’s tempting to think of a thaw.

The advice from Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter who is now an analyst: don’t.

"Putin sees politics in two dimensions; 'strength' and "weakness,' and a thaw for him is a synonym for 'weakness,'" Gallyamov told CBS News.

So instead, it’s more like an adjustment, a concession based on political and economic calculations.

Turn of the Screws

"The authorities want to balance it out," Gallyamov said. "The Kremlin understands that it can't tighten the screws all the time. It's not powerful enough to completely ignore the society's demand for democratization and dialogue."

He added: "There will be two more screws tightened for each one loosened."

And, of course, for a screw to be loosened, it must first be turned tight.

While it was obviously “a positive thing that he’s been released, the charges have not been dropped,” Noah Sneider, Moscow correspondent for The Economist, tweeted after the ruling freeing the director from house arrest. “That this small step back by the state is seen nowadays as a minor miracle speaks volumes.”

U.S. investor and founder of the Baring Vostok equity group Michael Calvey in court in Moscow on April 12, 2019.
U.S. investor and founder of the Baring Vostok equity group Michael Calvey in court in Moscow on April 12, 2019.

Or as analyst Alex Nice put it wryly in a tweet after the court ruling the form of custody for Calvey: “Invest in Russia -- you’ll only get house arrest.”

Like Serebrennikov, Calvey is still charged, and he and his colleagues at private-equity firm Baring Vostok face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of large-scale financial fraud -- a charge they deny.

Four of them remain behind bars. Frenchman Philippe Delpal had the term of his pretrial detention -- jail, that is -- extended to July 14, Bastille Day in his home country, by a court earlier in the week.

In a separate case, Calvey’s countryman, Paul Whelan, is also still confined to Moscow’s Lefortovo prison -- more than three months after he was arrested and accused of espionage. Russian authorities claim he was “caught red-handed,” but U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman told RFE/RL that they have provided no evidence so far -- urging them to “quit playing these games” and release him.

And for some the release of Serebrennikov is a reminder of the plight of another director, Ukrainian Oleh Sentsov. He is serving a 20-year prison sentence in Russia after being convicted of terrorism, a charge he and supporters say was trumped up as punishment for his opposition to Moscow’s takeover of Crimea.

Sentsov survived a 145-day hunger strike last year.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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