The Return of the Great Bear

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After the Sochi Winter Olympic Games and the concomitant coup against Victor Yanukovych in Ukraine, it is high time for a candid and frank discussion of the Russian Federation, its leadership, and its motives. Russian dissidents are saying sardonically – some sing in the streets – that although Russia won the Sochi Games, they have lost the Ukraine. The current regime has, in a similar manner to its Soviet progenitors, revealed itself as oligarchical, autocratic, intolerant, and repressive. Vladimir Putin is increasingly vilified as a pariah in international politics, coming into conflict with the USA, the UK, and the EU over a multiplicity of issues recently, such as Ukraine, Syria and homosexuality.

In the Middle East, as US influence wanes since the onset of the Arab Spring, it appears that the foothold of the Russian Federation is being markedly strengthened. At the UN, the hard-line diplomacy and uncompromising nonchalance of Vladimir Putin and foreign minister Sergey Lavrov ensured that it is Russia – and not the United States of America – who have taken control of the Syrian crisis, choosing to side with Bashar al-Assad. Aside from supplying materials for the modernisation of Syrian air defences and providing “soft” support for the UN, frustrating US attempts to order air strikes on Assad strongholds, the onus is also on Russia to ensure the disarmament of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile.

However, questions abound as to whether there are underlying motives behind Russia’s desire to increase its presence in the Mediterranean and whether its influence in Syria might signal a redress in the global power balance. The Levant basin in the eastern Mediterranean, on which the Syrian coast lies (as well as Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and Cyprus), is one of the most auspicious new regions for oil and natural gas exploration in the world. On Christmas Day, the Russian company Soyuzneftegaz signed a $90m deal which hands it exclusive exploration rights over 850 square miles of previously unexplored Syrian territorial waters. Russia also signed arms deals in 2012-13 with Egypt, Iraq and the UAE, a signal of their increasing influence as arms dealer in a region of ballooning political unrest.

At the same time, it is not only in the Mediterranean that the Russian sphere of influence is growing. In a meeting of Russian military leaders in November, Putin announced that Russia was “intensifying the development” of the Arctic and required “every lever for the protection of its security and national interests there”. Over the past year, Russia has renovated a number of airfields and military bases in the region and has sent a number of air units and warships to bolster security. The Russian Defence Minister announced earlier in December that he was creating a special military force dedicated to protecting Russian interests in the Arctic, hinting that the need for a greater military presence in the area stemmed from “potential threats” from the USA.

Images from Independence Square are perhaps the most emphatic of the resurrection of Russian influence in the demagogic figure of Vladimir Putin. Since November, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have camped out in the Maidan, hundreds have been injured, and dozens have died (88 is the official death count given by Ukraine’s Health Ministry), protesting against the autocracy of the now deposed president Viktor Yanukovych. It was Yanukovych’s last-minute decision to renege on a decision to join the EU and instead join a Russian-led Union which sparked the uprising. Opposition leaders, such as Vitali Klitschko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (released from jail on Saturday after a two year jail sentence), charged Yanukovych with pawning entire sectors of the Ukrainian economy to Putin’s Russia. Throughout the bloody and violent conflict, the Russian government promised aid to Yanukovych with government bonds and discounted gas on the grounds that he would “crush” the protest.

Ukraine now begins the process of rebuilding in the volatile aftermath of revolution. Independence Square has become a shrine to those killed in the action. Victor Yanukovych has fled to Balaklava in the Crimea. Other regions in the country have split from the governance of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, turning away from the East and towards the EU. Interim President Olexander Turchynov has met with the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, in Kiev to discuss financial and political support for Ukraine’s new leaders. However, Soviet Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev opposes the legitimacy of Ukraine’s new leadership, accusing Western governments of an “aberration of perception when people call legitimate what is essentially the result of an armed mutiny”. The Russian foreign ministry have further accused Ukraine’s interim leaders of passing new laws aimed at infringing “the humanitarian rights of Russians and other ethnic minorities”. It remains to be seen how the interim leadership handles the legacy of a revolution over the coming days and months amid fears of separatism and revolutionary fascist splinter groups. Whether the bloodshed will continue, and, ultimately, how Russia will handle the loss of the region remains uncertain.

As the USA begins its policy of conciliation and recalibration in the Middle East, it seems that the Russians are waiting at the door to fill the political vacuum left by their piecemeal withdrawal of influence and investment in the region. In the meantime in the Arctic, there is an increasing Russian military presence in order to protect national assets. Despite significant international opposition, Putin refused to be moved on the issue of his controversial legislation against homosexuality throughout the Sochi Olympic Games. And as the world watched as the Ukranian people rose against Yanukovych and threw of the shackles of his oppressive regime, the level of anti-Russian sentiment among the protesters is emblematic of the clear narrative of Vladimir Putin’s post-Soviet era influence over a traditional satellite state.

As the world continues to watches on, many may well ask whether we are witnessing the resurgence of the Great Bear.

Jamie Pinnock.

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