Make Russia Great Again. That is the mission Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have adopted in international politics. Following his return to the Kremlin in 2012, he took up a more assertive foreign policy, seeking to secure a seat at the top table of global diplomacy.
The effort has paid off. Thanks to its military intervention in Syria, Russia has graduated from a bystander to a leading powerbroker in the Middle East.
Showing off this newly acquired status, Putin recently hosted the presidents of Turkey and Iran, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani, to coordinate a joint response to US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of northeast Syria.
The summit marked the two-year anniversary of the so-called Astana Process whose professed goal is to bring the bloodshed in the embattled Middle Eastern country to an end.
Conspicuously enough, the US is not part of the forum. Astana, therefore, might be a harbinger of a new global order to come: One in which emergent non-Western powers, such as Russia, China, India and others run the show.
Over the past few years, Putin has not shied away from confronting the West. In his early days as leader, he wholeheartedly sided with the US in the aftermath of 9/11 and even touted the prospect of Russia joining NATO.
But by the time he delivered his oft-quoted speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, Putin had become convinced that the US and its allies were seeking to dethrone him by fomenting “colour revolutions” across the post-Soviet space. The Arab uprisings in 2010-2011 only confirmed his fears and, as a prime minister, he publicly denounced then-President Dmitry Medvedev’s decision not to block a UN Security Council resolution authorising a no-fly zone over Libya, which precipitated the British and French air raids and the ultimate downfall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
But the rift with the West became permanent when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in the spring of 2014. Since then, Putin has defied both the US and its European allies, who imposed sanctions in response to the annexation as well as to Moscow’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine, where fighting continues until the present day.
Perceptions of Russia have shifted as a result. Up until 2014, the US and the EU considered it a difficult partner but not a full-fledged adversary. Now, the Pentagon’s national defence strategy casts Russia as a military threat on a par with rising China. NATO has deployed troops in Eastern Europe in order to dissuade Moscow from pursuing aggressive action beyond its borders.
There are, moreover, mounting fears that Russia is using a variety of tools, ranging from economic blackmail to cyberattacks and from disinformation to support for populist right-wing and radical leftist parties to undermine its Western competitors from within. The ongoing controversy over Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections, along with the pro-Kremlin rhetoric of anti-immigration politicians in Europe such as Hungarian President Viktor Orban and Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, never ceases to generate headlines.
The EU has started talking about “resilience” against external influence campaigns, with its eastern neighbour in mind.
But Russia is not that powerful after all. Its GDP of $1.57 trillion is barely 8 percent of the US’ and comparable to that of a mid-sized European country like Spain. The Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which Putin finally managed to create in 2014 after years-long efforts, is no match for the economic juggernaut that is the EU.
Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal, inherited from the once-mighty Soviet Union, is at the same level as the US’. Yet, despite the ambitious military reform over the past decade, the Russian conventional forces lag far behind the US army’s in terms of capability and technological sophistication. At $63bn, Russia’s defence budget is far behind that of the US and China, which stand at $643bn and $168bn respectively.
Moscow has become better at fighting limited wars such as those in Ukraine and Syria but is not in a position to project military power globally. Despite its relatively close ties to China and India, Russia cannot rely on a stable network of alliances similar to the ones the US enjoys in Europe, East Asia and beyond.
In short, the Russian Federation cannot and will not replace the US as the leading power or hegemon in the Middle East or any other part of the world. Even its dominance in post-Soviet Eurasia is a tall order.
Countries in Eastern Europe, such as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova are oriented economically and politically towards the West. In Central Asia, China is becoming increasingly the dominant centre of gravity. In a post-American world, Russia, too, would likely end up as Beijing’s junior partner rather than an equal stakeholder.
The essence of Russia’s strategy is, to quote the late Russian politician Yevgeny Primakov, to “play a weak hand well”. In some cases, this involves exploiting an opponent’s vulnerabilities. Polarised domestic politics in the West have strengthened Russia’s hand. This has allowed Putin to play more effectively a “divide and conquer” game.
In other cases, Russia has benefited from being flexible. In the Middle East, for instance, it has been successfully cooperating with all mutually antagonistic powers: Iran, Israel, the Gulf, Turkey, the Kurds, etc.
Nonetheless, Putin’s foreign policy record remains mixed. Sometimes his gambles pay off, sometimes not. Russia’s fighter jets, together with Iran’s ground troops, saved the Assad regime in Syria. Crimea, too, was a coup. It sent the Russian president’s popularity ratings at home to 80 percent or more.
If Nicolas Maduro survives in Venezuela, that will give Russia a further international boost. In Europe, oil and gas endow Moscow with geopolitical leverage; Germany, for example, has been going out of its way to push for the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline, to the dismay of the US. Balkan countries, too, have been eager to host an extension of the Turk Stream pipeline.
But then again, there are limits to Moscow’s power. NATO is enlarging, despite pushback from Russia. This year North Macedonia is set to join the alliance, following in the footsteps of Montenegro.
At the same time, Putin is not making much headway in Ukraine. The conflict in the Donbas has long been in a state of deadlock while Kyiv is not accepting a Russian proposal for a power-sharing constitution which would effectively give Russia veto power over its foreign policy.
Furthermore, international success has come at a cost. The sanctions imposed by the EU and the US are still there. Despite – or perhaps because of – Donald Trump’s friendly overtures towards the Kremlin, the US Congress has been ramping up punitive measures against Russia. The Mueller investigation and the alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin have made a rapprochement even more unlikely.
For much of the past decade, this pursuit of greatness abroad was paying off domestically, giving Putin legitimacy and solidifying his grip on power. That appears to be less and less the case, however.
Foreign exploits are no longer able to boost his rating. Gains in Syria, the Central African Republic or Venezuela are not buying the regime popularity. Russian society is increasingly focused on immediate challenges at home, like anaemic growth, the projected rise of the pension age, and debilitating corruption. Trust in institutions is low, with only Putin retaining popularity as an individual. Social discontent is on the rise and the Western sanctions, in conjunction with volatile oil prices, are adding to the pain.
Certainly, these domestic pressures won’t force the Kremlin to undertake a U-turn and sue for peace. But they come as a healthy reminder that the idea that Russia is a revisionist power capable of upending the world order and Putin is a leader endowed with superhuman abilities is a far cry from reality.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.