Times of India, March 2, 2017
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Being Vladimir Putin: Russia’s president gets 20th century geopolitics, what he doesn’t get is 21st century geoeconomics.
In 2009 we witnessed a watershed moment for geoeconomics when the credit crisis, born in the United States, spread across the world. The integrated global economy temporarily tilted over the edge of the financial abyss before being pulled back by concerted collective action involving large economies around the world.
In 2016, we witnessed a backlash against this economic interconnectedness and the ideal of collective governance with a plethora of populist anti-globalisation movements leading to outcomes such as Brexit and the election of Trump. It is increasingly apparent that we are at the beginning of a new epoch, where global arrangements will be defined by various shades of nationalism, reassertion of state sovereignty, and multidimensional contests over territory, both real and virtual.
These developments also shaped the conversations at the recently concluded Munich Security Conference. Beyond the interest and noise around the Trump presidency, and the US approach to some of the global challenges, it was clear to most that President Putin was by far the most influential global leader on all matters security, something that three contemporary developments demonstrate emphatically.
Let’s start with West Asia. In less than 18 months, Russia has cleverly co-opted Turkey, firmly embraced Iran as a strategic partner and doubled down on its old ally Syria, bringing into its tent three diverging interests masterfully. In fact this alignment and the Russian relevance in this region stems from its understanding of how regional constellations of states and state-supported militias align. Guided by its partners, the US has faltered precisely on this aspect, erroneously programming itself into the Shia-Sunni schism, without realising that the nation-state still holds normative appeal in the region.
Second, Putin has managed to breach Fortress Nato by making Turkey pivot significantly towards Russia. Using President Erdoğan’s disillusionment with the Obama White House deftly, Putin has managed to drive a wedge between Nato and one of its oldest member states.
And finally, Putin has turned the tables on the most powerful nation in the world, by using its own modus operandi against it – that of intervening in the domestic politics of other states. Through strategic leaks, Putin deftly placed his finger on the scale of the American elections, tipping them in favour of Trump.
In this age of renewed political gamesmanship, Putin is the only player who has retained a chess set from the 20th century. While others have long forgotten the craft of geopolitics, Putin continues to move pieces like a Grandmaster. But does he have an endgame?
And herein lies the rub. This most influential global political figure, a man who has formidable military and security capacities at his disposal, is an inconsequential economic actor with insignificant economic agency. Russia, a country with a military might rivalling that of the US, has a GDP smaller than that of Australia and is ranked only ahead of South Africa among the Brics grouping that it helped create.
For all the accumulation of power and orchestration of geopolitics, Putin’s tactics are not going to fill Russia’s treasury. While 20th century realpolitik may be useful in 2017, Putin is also handicapped because he continues to view economics through a 20th century prism. Russia’s fixation with large transcontinental connectivity projects has led it to support China’s New Silk Road.
Without any significant expansion in Russia’s industrial and manufacturing economy, the country is fast being reduced to a political guarantor for Chinese economic expansion or a policeman for China’s property. And what of the future? In a world where 3D printing may become de rigueur, the transportation of millions of tonnes of manufacturing goods could be a dying reality.
Connectivity in this century is not simply about roads and railways, but also about bits and bytes and hearts and minds. It is the networks – knowledge, digital, social – that transfer and transmit value in the new world order. Economic growth in the 21st century requires digital hubs, clusters of start-ups and liberal regulatory confines where young minds working with technology can push society forward.
The reality is that 20th century economic projects that Russia is undertaking benefit China, and 21st century economic projects in Russia suffer from the absence of a requisite ecosystem. This has led to a certain fragility in the global governance architecture.
I have argued before that the asymmetry between Russia’s military potency and its economic state is dangerous. China, with its $11 trillion GDP, has significant destructive and disruptive capability as well. The stakes that it holds in the global economy, however, ensure that it will never destabilise global systems because it stands to gain from them. Russia does not have sizeable economic stakes in these systems and therefore only its political capability motivates its actions. This is being Vladimir Putin.
US efforts to “isolate” Moscow through sanctions have not only failed but also proved to be counterproductive. They have reduced Russia’s skin in the global economic game, allowing Putin to engage in exactly the same conduct that sanctions seek to deter. Washington DC must focus on cultivating a sense of ownership (and consequently, the fear of loss) in Russia towards economic and trading regimes.
But this is easier said than done and ironically it is Donald Trump, derided for his lack of diplomatic acumen, who is proving himself to be astute in this matter by reaching out to arguably the most influential man in the world – Vladimir Putin.
The writer is Vice-President Observer Research Foundation