The Russian factor

By Rafiq Raji, PhD 

In November 2014, at the G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia, Vladimir Putin was given the cold treatment by world leaders. Barack Obama, miffed by President Putin’s mischief, in Crimea months earlier no less, was particularly passive-aggressive. Not that Mr Obama was not justified; Mr Putin treated him like a school boy. And the probability that Mr Putin might be amenable to reason was very low. So if he were not going to conform, the least that could be done was to make it clear he would not be accorded the respect he so dearly craved. While the other leaders were having a chatty and hearty lunch, Mr Putin had to make do with empy chairs at his table and one other quiet partner; who simply munched her lunch. He left the summit early. At the airport, Mr Putin made sure to shake the hands of all the staff that attended to him, including those that tended to his plane; a measure of his anger. One could not help noticing a wry smile as he did this: he was already planning a revenge. Not in the sense we are used to, though. He did not go gun-blazing. Well he did that, sort of. But in an intelligent way. Probably out of spite towards Mr Obama, who chickened out from bombing Syria, even after evidence surfaced President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, Mr Putin went ahead with the task. The symbolism paid off. Russia is now crucial to any potential resolution of that intractable crisis. But all of that showmanship, of which Mr Putin is never short of, paled in comparison to what is beginning to emerge. The Russians have been engaged in a systematic operation of subversion against Western democracies; top of them the United States. American intelligence agencies accuse Russia of meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Mr Putin’s point, they argue, was to make a mockery of that supposed archetypal bastion of the free world. The beneficiary, Donald Trump, a man as unconventional and insecure as they come, who it is believed would not have won otherwise, has by his actions and inactions, raise suspicions that Mr Putin may have a stranglehold on him. Because even under the most intense pressure, Mr Trump has not so much as put Mr Putin in a bad light, talk less of throwing the ever-ready insults he is wont to put at others. But that is just a bit of it.

Hands in every pie
Reports are beginning to emerge that not only was Russia meddling in the American elections, it also interfered in the British Brexit vote. It has even been suggested that the supposed illegal Catalonia independence vote in Spain had some Russian influence. And in South Africa, the much vilified Gupta brothers are beginning to seem like kids relative to the Russians. Jacob Zuma, the South African president, as if under a spell, insists on an expensive nuclear power build. Initially, it was thought this was motivated by potential pecuniary gains. However, it is beginning to seem like Mr Zuma may have little choice in the matter. The Russians want to build South Africa a nuclear power station. And what the Russians want, they would have. At least, so it is beginning to seem.

So it begs the question: what do the Russians want? That is simple. Respect. Mr Putin and his cohort of ex-spies recall an age when the former Soviet Union was great and feared. That age is long gone. But the thinking is not. What Putin’s Russia wants is to have a say in major international matters. And to be frank, before Mr Putin’s antics, Russia was increasingly sidelined. Well, not anymore. The United Kingdom is reeling from a bumbling and fractious political leadership. Brexit negotiations have been characterised by twists and turns to nowhere. Spain barely escaped a crisis as Catalonians sought to break away from the federation. And not until regional elections planned for December are concluded, the region’s governance hangs in the balance. And in America, Mr Trump is under investigation, at least his aides are, for proof or otherwise of Russian interference in the American elections. Of course, Mr Putin takes offense at even the thought he might be so idle as to even follow the American polls. No matter. Things are just the way he would have wished.

Also published in my Premium Times Nigeria column. See link viz.

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