Even its critics have to admit that Russia was 2016’s dominant superpower.
At a time when the European Union began to fray and the US drowned in political strife and shame, Russia emerged from the geopolitical shadows, where it had been lost for a quarter of a century, displaying imperial vision, vigor and sway.
This may be difficult to recall by now, but only five years ago, when NATO began bombing Libya, Western leaders treated Russia like a dying power that can be ignored while the West snatches its bastions.
Last year this impression was dispelled, from both its ends. The West’s failure to rule the world could not be more manifest, and Russia’s imperial resurgence could not be more apparent.
Completing with astonishing speed what it began in autumn 2015, Russia multiplied its aerial presence in Syria and also shipped there a mighty flotilla led by an aircraft carrier, to the world’s mixture of trepidation and respect.
In 2016 Russia brought on its knees Turkey, whose army is NATO’s second-largest. Last year’s incident in which Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet ended with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pilgrimaging to the Kremlin, where he begged Vladimir Putin’s forgiveness.
Even more incredibly, in 2016 Russia was accused of meddling in the American presidential election. While such interference could not have been effective, its very possibility was until recently unthinkable.
No less ominous and much less far-fetched is the thought that Russia encouraged the Middle East’s exportation of unwanted migrants to European shores. Russia had good reason to help this movement, because the way it sees things, the EU provoked it and as such had better cease to exist.
RUSSIA’S IMPERIAL quest began defensively.
Having first seen the former communist satellites in Central Europe escape Russia’s orbit; then the former Soviet possessions in the Baltics, and then also in Ukraine and Central Asia – Putin began wondering where the retreat ends. When he saw Washington tempting Georgia to join NATO and Brussels luring Ukraine to join the EU, he drew his line – with a knife.
The West, still indulging in the post-Cold War era’s moralism, didn’t get it. The way it saw things, freedom and democracy were predestined victors. Moreover, the West didn’t think it was behaving imperialistically, so why would Russia? Historians will indeed wonder how it was that Western diplomacy did not understand it was provoking Russia, how Western leaders lacked intelligence about Putin’s thoughts, feelings and plans, how he was restoring Russia’s military, and how he might readily activate it.
While intriguing, in 2016 these questions became academic. Now Russia’s imperial pretension is a fixture of the international system, and the only question is how far it might reach.
The good news is that the current Russian leadership, unlike the Soviets but very much like the czars, does not care where the world itself is headed, but cares greatly about the vast belt that surrounds Mother Russia – from Western Europe to China and Japan, through the Middle East.
The bad news, from the viewpoint of Russia’s rivals, is that the sanctions the West imposed on Moscow have backfired, and only further underscored the Russian bear’s weight and clout.
The simplest indication of this economic resilience is visible in the currency markets, where the ruble rose this year 30%, from 85 to 60 rubles to the dollar, thus partly offsetting the sanctions’ initial jolt two years ago, when it fell within several months by 50%, from 36 to 70 rubles per dollar.
Much more impressively, Russia has managed in recent years to create a viable and competitive agriculture, so much so that this year it became the world’s leading wheat exporter, bypassing the US.
The communists, by contrast, unable to motivate workers and organize distribution, repeatedly registered failed harvests, while the USSR came to depend on Western grain.
Now, 20 years after harvesting 35 million metric tons, Russian wheat growers yielded 70 million metric tons, thus creating a global glut, with prices plunging from nearly $12 per bushel in 2008 to $4.02 this week, while US exports, which in 1974 comprised 50% of the global market, are now a mere 15%.
Russia thus showed that sanctioning it is futile. It can easily feed itself, it has more commodities than anyone else on earth, and its industry can manufacture anything its trade partners won’t sell it.
Moreover, Russia’s agricultural performance means that Putin’s imperial designs come coupled with a social vision – to resurrect the class of private farmers that the communists dispossessed, the kulaks. The ranchers, who were czarist Russia’s economic and political backbone, are also Putin’s heroes, as opposed to the factory workers, whom the czars distrusted and the communists embraced.
Putin, like the czars, has more trust in villagers and farmers, who presumably worship stability and obey authority, than in city dwellers and factory workers, who are prone to develop an excessive appetite for independent thought, free speech and political accountability.
Whatever his designs, Putin has weathered the West’s sanctions, stood his ground in Ukraine, smoothly restored Russia’s Middle Eastern outposts at the expense of a stammering Europe and a clumsily retreating US, and while at it emerged as the region’s power broker.
Having effectively conquered the Syrian coastal strip with a naval base in its south and an aerial base in its north, Putin has just launched negotiations with Turkey and Iran over Syria’s future, leaving the US and Europe out of the talks. Never since the end of the Cold War has the West faced such a geopolitical defeat.
Such has been the Russian zenith in 2016.
In 2017 it will begin to eclipse.
WITH EMPIRE comes a great burden, and Russia is already feeling its brunt.
The assassination last week of Moscow’s ambassador to Turkey was but the start.
Bombarding to death thousands of civilians, as millions of Syrians believe Russia did, means that millions who previously had no issue with Russia now see it as Dracula.
Chances are high that they will seek ways to terrorize Russia, a temptation that is helped by the ubiquity of thousands of Russians in Syria, all potential targets.
The deaths this week of 92 passengers aboard a flight from Russia to Syria, though apparently an accident, nonetheless made many Russians ask what Americans, Soviets, and Israelis asked during their respective wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Lebanon: What are we doing there? Putin is apparently aware of this. That is why he is seeking a settlement in Syria that will end the fighting. This, indeed, will be his great imperial test in 2017: Will he manage to end the war, and will he manage to deliver peace? Sadly, on both fronts chances are low he will deliver.
Much like the West, Putin can deal with governments, but he cannot control insurgents.
He can force Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Iranian allies to acquiesce to Turkey’s effective takeover of northern Syria; he can force Ankara to accept Russian troops’ permanent presence at Turkey’s threshold; and he can also sanction a Shi’ite population transfer to areas from which Sunnis fled.
Yet Putin cannot make more than 10 million Sunni Syrians return to Assad’s bosom, and he also can’t stop them from seeking revenge for what they have been through under Russian sponsorship. In short, Putin’s imperial quest has made him play with fire, and its flames may be approaching him faster than he appreciates.
This is besides the fact that Russia’s economic resilience can only go that far.
The farming sector’s exports, while impressive, added up last year to $20 billion.
Yes, for the first time ever, Russia exported more grain than arms, but for a superpower this figure is low, and it is marginal in Russia’s overall exports, which last year exceeded $340b., dominated by oil.
Oil, however, lost over the past three years more than half its value, thus plunging the Russian economy into crisis regardless of its imperialism’s economic costs, both in terms of the sanctions it provoked and in terms of the military deployments it involved in farflung theaters, from Ukraine to Syria.
The unaffordability of all this to Moscow became apparent last month, when it colluded with OPEC in a deal to cut oil outputs. The deal did spike oil prices initially, but in the longer term it is a financial nonstarter. Diplomatically, it is a behavior worthy not of a superpower but of an unconfident economic laggard that prefers to remain addicted to raw materials.
The imperial limits that all this implies are likely to emerge as a central feature of 2017, especially if President-elect Donald Trump demands the OPEC deal’s cancellation in return for lifting sanctions. The year 2016, however, when Russia emerged from the geopolitical woodwork, will be recalled as the year of the Russian bear.