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Putin's procedure: The new Russian power bloc

Photo: wikimedia commons

It may have been a symbolic gesture when other world leaders suspended Russia's membership of the G8 during the third Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands in late March, even as they declared that they "remain ready" to intensify sanctions if Russia were to take further action in Ukraine.

While U.S. President Barak Obama described Russia as acting "out of weakness" and risking becoming an "internationally isolated country," Russian President Vladimir Putin appears set on a long-run political plan, even if short-term economic losses have to be taken. And, his ambitions may go beyond transforming Russia from the "regional power" of Obama's condescension to a global one.

Expressing satisfaction that the West was united in punishing Russia, if it did not reverse course, a U.S. official said: "The cost is far greater for the Russians, who stand to lose much more."

Some experts suggest that the impact of sanctions on Russia's stock markets will amount to millions of dollars a day. The head of its largest bank, the state-owned Sberbank, has warned that Russia is at risk of recession. And the deputy economy minister has estimated capital flight in the first quarter of 2014 at up to 50 billion euro.

But EU members' reliance on Russian energy could prove a critical deterrent against further action. If 40 per cent of Russian gas is shipped through Ukraine, then 35 per cent of EU demand for fossil fuels, oil and gas is met by Moscow.

Before the Crimean parliament resolved to enter the Russian Federation, Putin claimed that since the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. had lacked moral authority, while the EU would be unable to manage another financial crisis. In that context, the key invocation in his speech to the Russian parliament was: "Let's start the procedure."

While some experts have suggested Russia's action in Crimea has been a reflex response to its loss of influence in Kiev, in a longer-term perspective Putin's behavior is based on a post-imperial complex, as a leader longing to reconstitute a new power bloc. Not only Western governments and Russia's neighbors but many other countries will be faced with this emerging coalition.

Take Iran and the nuclear question. With Russia the most "supportive friend" to the Islamic regime among UN Security Council members, Putin has been able to play a double role vis-à-vis the West and Teheran.

While there are many economic and military reasons for the close relationship between the two countries, this pivotal position has benefited Russia regionally and internationally. Notably, Iran, the world's largest source of natural gas, tries to play a pro-Russian role in the European energy market by concentrating only on Asian demand.

Egypt is another example. The visit to Russia in February by the rmy chief and prospective presidential candidate, Abdel el-Sisi, came against a background of soured relationships with the U.S., Egypt's long-time ally and military patron: Washington suspended some of its $1.5 billion annual aid, most of which goes to the Egyptian military, following the latter's deposition of the Islamist government last July.

Although an Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesperson insisted that the Moscow visit was not intended to be "against anyone," rather to "diversify partners," Putin said he would support the general's presidential bid -- and both Russian and Egyptian media carried reports of a $2 billion arms deal.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Iran is acting as Russia's advocate in supporting Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Turkey had been the most influential opponent of the Assad regime in the region. The recurring protests in its major cities have however led Ankara not only to suppress civil society organizations, but also to review its policy on Syria.

Some analysts suggest that Iran has convinced the Turkish government, to sustain its authority, to shift towards the Eastern bloc. Although the situation between Turkey and Syria is still very critical, Iran is trying to reduce tensions to undermine U.S. strategy and form an alternative regional coalition in favor of the Eastern powers.

Obama's first visit to Saudi Arabia days later provided telling evidence of the emergence of a new bloc. According to Saudi media reports, anxieties over the Syrian civil war and U.S. nuclear negotiation with Iran were top of King Abdullah's concerns. The main mission of Obama's visit was to assure the Saudis that he was not neglecting them: officials conceded "tactical differences" but claimed "strategic interests" were aligned.

The latest Freedom House report suggests that 80 per cent of Russians believe that political and economic strength are more important than a "good democracy." Even if for Obama "Russia is only a regional power," to challenge his view Russia seems already to have set in train its own political scenario. To halt the "NATO progress toward the East," as the Russian media put it, as well as achieving a more influential role, the Kremlin has started its procedure.

Arash Falasiri worked as a journalist in Iran for more than a decade. He won the national prize for the best journalist of the year in 2001. He is now a PhD candidate in Social and Political Thought at York University.

Photo: wikimedia commons

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