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A Cornered Putin?
In Defense of the Faith
Friday, December 12, 2014
Alf Cengia

Vladimir Putin is currently an angry man. Oil's not well with him at all.

But, as Maxwell Smart would say, "Sorry about that pun, Comrade."

I'd hate to work for Putin, or share an office with him right now. You wouldn't want to steal...er...borrow any of his stationary without asking him nicely first. Your colleagues just might find you under your desk with a pen sticking out of the side of your neck. He's as ruthless as Daniel Craig's James Bond. Heck they even kinda look the same - except that Putin works for the wrong team.

George W. Bush once said that he looked into Putin's eyes and saw a soul there. Yet by the time Bush had met him, there was already a trail of dead Russian dissenters strewn across the landscape.

To be fair to Bush, he has since observed that Putin is a different person from that meeting. After Russia invaded the Republic of Georgia, he and Putin had a somewhat less congenial exchange. Bush warned Putin that the Georgian leader was "hot-blooded." When Putin proudly responded that he was hot-blooded as well, Bush told him: "No Vladimir. You’re cold-blooded.” This is a significant observation.

I guess the romance was over by then. As the saying goes, c'est la vie.

Of course, United States Vice President Joe Biden always knew better. Hindsight is a marvelous thing. He boasted that he told Putin: "I said, 'Mr. Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul." Apparently the latter responded: "We understand one another."

Biden has always displayed that irrepressible confidence and one could admire him for that, at least. Personally, I'd be constantly checking my rear view mirrors and looking under my bed. I'd also consider investing in a thallium-poison detector.

Meanwhile Biden's Obama administration has peered into the Iranian Regimes eyes and seen a soul there as well. And we already know how well the love-letter exchange between President Obama and President Rouhani has worked out. The U.S. is now happily negotiating Iran into nuclear capability.

While the U.S. would hardly consider imposing fresh sanctions on Iran, Israel is another story. It, however, does not have the luxury of Biden's hindsight.

While Bush changed his mind based on Putin's actions, Russians actually applauded them. As the International Business Times notes:

"His [Putin's] popularity tends to spike when he makes bold moves, according to the Telegraph. Putin’s ratings skyrocketed from an all-time low of 61 percent in November of last year to their current high mark after Russia allegedly began supporting pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s east, annexed Crimea in southern Ukraine and bucked Western sanctions."

That says something about the current Russian sentiment. It's notable that Putin's popularity rose even after protest marches over rigged elections. Even more notable is the fact that the rigged election was a success.

Will a sudden drop in popularity - due to an oil price drop recession - necessarily change Putin's course? No, that isn't who Vladimir Putin is. Even so, just like there was a regime behind Iran's Ahmadinejad and the more superficially congenial Rouhani, there is a Kremlin-mentality regime behind Putin. Remove Putin and you still have the regime.\

Putin's problems have been exacerbated by the Saudi decision to tamper with the oil prices as a weapon. As Brian Downing observes:

"The Saudis are well practiced in using their oil in world politics...Today, the Saudis and their fellow Sunni oil-producers are seeking to slash the export revenues of Russia and Iran - Syria's principal."

But Downing also points out that Riyadh cannot indefinitely continue doing this as they also "depend on oil revenue to run their governments and keep their populations reasonably content." The same process which attempts to weaken the Shi'ites will also affect "already strained sectarian tensions in the Sunni princedoms."

In other words, oil prices must eventually rise again.

In the meantime, Putin isn't exactly running around with his tail between his legs. Russia will not lie down and capitulate just because it is being punished. Putin is still courting Turkey over the South Stream pipeline, and he might still pull it off. For a full appreciation of the complexities and the possible economic ramifications, Pepe Escobar's article is helpful.

The International Business Times notes that:

"In Italy, France and Germany, the Kremlin has been fairly successful in building up [a] network of allies that Putin hopes would translate to solid support for Russia when needed."

It also notes:

"Russia's increasingly tense relationship with the U.S. and the West appears to indicate that Vladimir Putin has no intentions of backing down and is all geared up for a showdown, likely involving nuclear weapons, with America and NATO." (Emphasis mine)

Is the IBT being unnecessarily alarmist regarding nuclear weapons? For what it's worth, Bloomberg reports Putin's present dark mood:

"President Vladimir Putin vowed to punish speculators attacking the ruble with “harsh” measures in a defiant speech that reached into Russian history to defend his annexation of Crimea and compared his international opponents with Adolf Hitler." (Emphasis mine)

While I doubt Russia will find lasting economic relationships in Italy, France and Germany, the Middle East is another thing. I would be looking for Putin to continue cultivating Russia's rapport with Iran and Syria. Will he succeed in forging a deeper one with Turkey?

We'll soon see.

In any case, a cornered Putin is a dangerous Putin. And he won't easily forget.

About Alf Cengia

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