Karl Rove is relaxed but adamant: "The threat from Russia is definitely growing," he says. "Putin is becoming more bellicose; he feels he can push the edge of the envelope further than ever before."
The former senior adviser and Deputy Chief of Staff to U.S. President George W. Bush has no interest in being diplomatic as we sit on a pristine white sofa inside the Mystetskyi Arsenal in central Kyiv, Ukraine's capital city.
The arsenal is a grand building with high and rounded brick ceilings and large, arched, almost church-like, windows. Completed in 1801, it once housed the garrison charged with guarding Kyiv; now it stands as a monument to Ukrainian culture and art. Today, however, it houses the Yalta European Strategy (YES) conference, sponsored by Ukrainian businessman Viktor Pinchuk, which has brought politicians and diplomats from all corners of the world to discuss the situation in Ukraine -- and that is simply impossible to do without discussing Russia.
Rove continues: "[Putin is doing] anything that can and will expand Russian influence to U.S.S.R.-era levels of power. Russia is back in the Middle East for the first time since 1972. As well as Ukraine, he is menacing the Baltics and the Nordic countries, and critically, he is willing to tolerate the cost to his country, which is considerable."
He's right. Putin first began to reassert Russian power in the Georgian war of 2008. He followed this, in 2014, by illegally annexing Crimea and invading eastern Ukraine. Late last year, Russian forces entered Syria. It's been a heady few years for the Kremlin.
But Russia has suffered considerably as a result of all this adventurism. International sanctions and declining oil prices have combined to pummel its economy. When he began to consolidate his power in the early 2000s, Putin's deal with the Russian people was simple: They would receive economic stability -- and, critically, much higher standards of living -- in exchange for a loss of freedoms. Today, that deal no longer looks sustainable, so a new, unspoken one now lies on the table: In exchange for a (further) loss of freedoms and (now) economic hardship, the Russian people will swell with national pride at a Russia -- once mocked and belittled by the West -- now retaking its rightful place at the center of global power politics. Economic growth is out; chauvinism is in.
Mass Support For Putin
At the moment, it is a deal that seems to be holding. During my visit to Moscow and Siberia in April, it was clear that beyond educated and globally engaged millennials, mass support for the president still existed. "Russia is strong once more" was a comment I heard, in various formulations, again and again during my time there. Criticism of Putin was largely confined to journalists or tattooed youths in the capital's hipster bars.
Putin has arguably played his cards well, especially when it comes to his latest global show of strength: Syria. The emergence of the self-declared Islamic State extremist group (IS) in the region allowed Moscow to intervene in the conflict under the guise of combating the group's horrific atrocities. In essence, it has assumed a leadership role in Washington's largest foreign-policy initiative of the 21st century: the "Global War on Terror." Putin is using American policy to further Russian ends. He has used the doctrine as cover to further expand Russia's sphere of influence; for Putin, Islamic State is a geopolitical gift he can use to secure his country's strategic influence in the Middle East.
And some argue that he has been allowed to do so by exploiting Western indecision. Rove adds: "President [Barack] Obama has mishandled Syria from the beginning. You don't say the use of chemical weapons is a red line and when they are deployed not take any effective action. Now we are seeing close coordination between Russia and the U.S. in combating Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State, which may not be the best of moves -- we will have to see how it works in practice. [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad is a Russian client and Russia is merely concerned that he remain in power, despite the destruction of Syria and the threat to Sunni Muslims he poses. Moscow is merely concerned with strengthening Assad's hold over part of the country, which also includes its [Russia's] naval facility [at Tartus]."
Rove's words proved depressingly prophetic. The cease-fire that had been brokered between the U.S. and Russia between forces loyal to Assad and the assorted rebel groups opposing it -- designed to allow Moscow and Washington to join forces and smash IS and the other jihadist groups -- agreed upon on September 12, is over. Even worse, U.S. air strikes that were first believed to have mistakenly killed 60 Syrian troops instead of IS now appear to have killed regime prisoners forced to put on Syrian army uniforms.
Putin claimed that while the Syrian regime was "fully abiding" by the cease-fire, rebel groups (some of which the U.S. backs) were using it merely as an opportunity to regroup, and he accused Washington of being more concerned with retaining its military capacity in the area than with trying to weed out the extremist rebel groups from the more "moderate" ones.
On the ground, things appear to be in more disarray than ever. Perhaps most shockingly, footage emerged of Free Syrian Army rebels (FSA), the group with arguably the closest ties to Washington, ordering U.S. Special Forces out of the town of Al-Rai in northern Syria, screaming in the process that "Christians and Americans have no place among us." Hours later, U.S. soldiers reportedly returned to the town accompanied by FSA fighters, and the rebels who led the protest were reportedly "discharged," likely under orders from Ankara.
A 'Net Loss'
All of this suits Russia just fine -- for the moment. The question remains: How long can it sustain its imperial adventures? Rove concluded: "Putin has temporarily succeeded through the popular support of the Russian people, but that will decline after another year of economic stagnation. At the same time, his actions have forced Europe to rethink its energy policy" -- whereby Europe is heavily reliant on Russian gas -- "so at the same time he is also losing customers. Overall, this is going to be a net loss for him."
In the meantime, however, Putin marches onward, with troops still massed on Ukraine's border while he swaggers across the global stage, trying -- ostensibly -- to bring "peace" to Syria while at the same time trying -- ostensibly -- to eradicate the threat from IS. The reality that Russian forces have in fact spent their time in Syria mostly attacking non-IS targets who are hostile to Assad in order to prop up their client is merely the final layer of hypocrisy within which the brutal cynicism of Russia's Syria policy -- especially regarding IS -- is coated.
At a panel discussion at the YES conference on September 17, the former director of policy planning for President George W. Bush, Richard Haass, struck a glum note. "[Former Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev still had to deal with the Politburo during the most dangerous moment of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis," he told an audience of Ukrainian MPs, foreign diplomats, and journalists.
"But I see no equivalent checks and balances for Putin. In fact, I'm not even sure there is a Russian expression for 'checks and balances.'"