Putin attends a meeting with members of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights in Moscow. Photo: Reuters / Yuri Kochetkov.
Putin attends a meeting with members of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights in Moscow. Photo: Reuters / Yuri Kochetkov.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has every reason to be proud of himself. He is a master of high geopolitical games. Moscow’s influence is more widespread than ever, possibly even greater than at the height of the Cold War, when Moscow was the capital of the Soviet Empire and vying with Washington for global dominance.

In the American presidential campaign, for the first time ever, a candidate openly quoted Putin as a model to follow, while in past decades, Russia, in its Soviet incarnation, was just the great enemy against which the United States should prepare to fight.

At the Vatican, some Catholics on the fringe praise Putin and blame their Pope for the present state of the Catholic Church. Moreover, the Pope is keen on improving ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, making up about half of all Christian Orthodoxy. Therefore, for the first time since the Byzantine emperors, the Oriental Orthodox Church has gained some kind of a political-religious foothold in Rome (see: http://www.atimes.com/popes-soft-power-vs-putins-war-religions-china/). This is extremely important as the Holy See is growing a geopolitical soft power and it is assuming a broader role of peacemaker.

On both fronts Putin appears also as a better embodiment of some theo-con theories calling on Christian values, in a certain tradition personified by the Pope, to cement the western resolve against rising ambitions of Muslims and Asians. Putin has thus moved Russia as an anchor of western civilization and no longer as some kind of Asian outpost of the West, as it was with the USSR.

In Europe, the UK—possibly Putin’s archenemy—seems determined to leave the EU. In this way, the UK could harm both the EU and itself (the pound and real estate are getting hit, while Scotland is determined to break off to stay in Europe). The EU in fact could be undermined by the Brexit in itself, and the inspiration other countries may get from the Brexit, as growing voices in individual European countries see the EU as the cause of, not the solution to, their political and economic ills. The disintegration of the EU would destroy the single largest social, economic, and political barrier to Russian geopolitical extension westward and thus re-open Moscow’s ambitions in the Continent.

Russia has also made vast inroads in the Middle East. It has good ties with Israel since cooling in the late 1940s, and it is the main support of the failing Assad’s regime in Syria. In fact, Israel is keeping out of the Syrian mess, and the US is getting bogged down by its past failures (the war in Iraq and failed revolutions in Libya and Syria), its interest in pulling out of the region (Middle Eastern oil is no longer strategically so important), and contradictory aims (Is it allied with Turkey, or the Saudis, or Qatar? What does it do with Iran?). This has left a lot of room for Moscow, which has thus become one of the main powers in the fragile balance of the region.

China looks to Russia as a way out of its possible isolation in the Far East after the US Pivot to Asia and the growing agitation in the region about Beijing’s new assertiveness. Beijing is also warming to the idea of having some kind of military alliance with Moscow after a more than 50-year freeze. In this way, Putin might reach with Beijing what Khrushchev failed to get in early 1960s. But this is not Moscow’s only bet in East Asia, as it was in the early 1960s. With Japan, Russia is talking of an eventual agreement on the thorny issue of the Kurili Islands, controlled by Moscow but claimed by Tokyo. With India, it is strengthening its military ties, and selling Delhi its newest weaponry.

All of this is good for Russia and not necessarily bad for everybody else. The appeal Moscow has in wider European circles, in some circles in America and in Israel, proves he is standing for something sounds deeply in many capitals. It is proof of the failures of the present situation of the European Union and of some policies of the United States. Therefore there should be room to work on them, without sacrificing in any case the rights of some of Russia’s neighbors, scared of Moscow’s belligerent stand.

All these geopolitical successes, though, are possibly very weak, because behind them there is a failing economy. Last year GDP shrank by 3.7%, and a devaluation of about 50% against the dollar has failed to rekindle the economy. Most importantly, the largest part of Russia’s economy depends on the export of oil and raw materials, whose prices are dropping and will not grow in the near future. Oil and gas are increasingly abundant in the world, with new reserves being discovered almost daily, and energy-saving technologies are growing cheaper and more sophisticated by the day.

Therefore, in the foreseeable future it is unlikely a price hike in gas and oil that could replenish Moscow’s coffers, and thus the performance of the Russian economy is bound to have more problems. Meanwhile, between 2005 and 2015, the share of the state in the economy doubled, from 35% to 70%, and arguably this means the economy is less efficient, because the state in general and the Russian state in particular, is less capable of optimal allocation of resources and investment than private enterprise.

As I wrote before Moscow was hit by the consequences of the 2008 financial crisis (see “Why the EU needs Russia,” with Anna Zafesova, La Stampa, August 3, 2008), Russia has great opportunities, which are not in the simple gains of exporting geopolitical influence or oil and gas. Russia can import capital and geopolitical influence within its territory and learn to manage them internally, not externally. Russia is a natural bridge between East Asia and Europe, the two most dynamic regions in the world.

It would be easy for Moscow to draw investments from all over the world to develop its vast landmass as a highway of trade and communication in Eurasia. Moreover, Russia could import policies for development of small and medium enterprises and try to check on the excessive power of its own industrial conglomerates. Moscow could therefore manage to draw on the interests of European, Asian, and also American companies keen on developing both Russian small and medium enterprises and its infrastructure “highway” of communication and exchanges.

In this way, the economic growth of Russia would help the economic growth of the rest of the world and it could become the physical terrain where Asia, Europe and America could meet and build common interests for development. In this, Russia would not be alone as China, many Asian countries and the rest of Europe are already keen on re-developing the New Silk Road initiative launched by Beijing. This of course needs a daring change of direction internally and willingness to become more international, an exchange station between different states and nations and not an extended fortification extended over the northern glacial borders of the Eurasian continent.

It is not a matter of choices or preferences. Napoleon wanted three things to win wars “money, money, money,” and all lasting empires dread at the risk of overextension. Now Russia suffers from both: it is overextended and has little money. With dwindling resources, a weakening GDP and a crowd of geopolitical initiatives Moscow is spread very thin in this world, and the more geopolitical successes mean larger dangers of implosion in the following years.

On the other hand, welcoming and managing foreign capitals for its development and the development of an Eurasian bridge that would include the US could be a way to capitalize now on its present predicament. In other times perhaps Krushev’s reforms might have saved, through radical change Russia. The apparatus chose to get rid of Krushev for a few years of stasis that lead to the eventual disintegration of the USSR. Now Putin is more powerful than Krushev, Russia is more open and Moscow now is not engaged in a mortal combat with the rest of the world, as it was with the USSR.

Francesco Sisci is an Italian sinologist, author and columnist who lives and works in Beijing. He works for the Catholic research center Settimananews.it

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