The bear is back. That’s the message coming from the chattering classes and their think-tanks in the west. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s long serving leader, won most of the geopolitical battles he fought this year, outmaneuvering his western rivals in several keys areas.
Forbes Magazine dubbed the Russian president the world’s most powerful man of 2013, placing him one spot ahead of US President Barack Obama.
As western intervention in Syria looked likely following a chemical weapons attack, the former KGB agent stepped in to broker a last minute deal in which Syria’s government would destroy its chemical weapons stockpiles under the eyes of international inspectors.
A war weary US government balked at the idea of another full-throttle Middle East deployment, despite Obama’s insistence that chemical weapons were a “red line”.
As the US spurned intervention, America’s Middle Eastern allies took their own – sometimes bizarre – proposals to Russia.
Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, Bandar bin Sultan reportedly made Putin an offer he could refuse. The Saudis proposed a buy up to $15bn worth of Russian weapons while protecting Russia’s gas exports to Europe from rival competitors if Putin eased his support for Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria.
Bandar also made a veiled threat; the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi could face attacks from Chechen fighters – presumably backed by Riyadh – if Putin didn’t end his support for Syria’s government at the UN Security Council. Russia refused the overtures.
From Ukraine to Sochi
When the former spook Edward Snowden revealed details of massive US spy operations compromising the privacy of millions around the world, Russia offered him asylum , infuriating Washington and London.
Hardly a bastion of liberalism, Snowden’s critics lambasted the whistleblower’s decision to take shelter in Moscow, where opposition activists and independent journalists face serious harassment and intimidation.
For Putin, Snowden was a convenient stick he could unsheathe to poke and prod his adversaries in the White House and Whitehall.
Domestically, the commodities boom driving Russian growth over the past decade has slowed. Its economy remains stronger than many of its Eurozone rivals, but natural resource dependence and crony capitalism have stalled much needed structural reforms.
While 2013 was a good year for Russia, the long-term outlook isn’t so rosy. Alienated from the West and much of the Sunni Muslim world for its stance in Syria, some observers assume Russia should deepen its relations with China. But Moscow would invariably be the weaker party in any Sino-Slavic pact, and that’s not something the Kremlin is willing to entertain.
Building a customs union with former members of the Soviet bloc could be helpful in the interim. And Putin successfully pulled Ukraine away from the European Union with discounts on natural gas and a line of credit. So confident was Putin that he freed his long-time critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky along with activists from Greenpeace who had been protesting Russian drilling in the Arctic.
But with a declining population and the possibility of decreased petroleum earnings by the later part of the 21st century, Russia is stuck with demographic and diplomatic challenges. For now, however, with the Olympics on the way and the oil still flowing, Russia and its leader are basking in a warm glow.
Follow Chris Arsenault On Twitter: @AJEchris