Some leaders are born lucky, some make their own luck, and others, like Vladimir Putin, have good luck thrust upon them. Russia’s president may not have created this recent string of international good fortune, but he’s an accomplished political opportunist who is no doubt looking for creative new ways to seize the day. Consider how many stories are breaking his way.
Some in the United States accuse state-backed Russian hackers of stealing communications from the Democratic National Committee and, perhaps, from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. I’ll leave the specialists to try to confirm or refute this charge, but fears that the Kremlin knows American secrets and can use them to manipulate a US presidential election must surely make Putin smile.
It’s true that Republican nominee Donald Trump has threatened to undermine NATO from within and recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea – and that Trump’s campaign manager once worked for former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a man many Ukrainians considered Putin’s man in Kiev. It’s also true that Putin blames then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for inciting protests against him in Moscow in 2011. Whatever the truth about the hacking, Trump is extremely unlikely to become president. But years of suspicion that Americans have fomented political turmoil inside former Soviet Republics, and sometimes in Moscow, give Putin ample reason to enjoy the anxiety produced by his suspected supporting role in this year’s US election.
Putin’s luck extends well beyond the United States. Despite suspicions in the White House, the Russian president has won serious concessions from the Obama administration on joint efforts to end Syria’s civil war. The US and Russian governments have long split over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Americans accuse him of war crimes and say he must go, but Russia continues to support him, in part because Assad is Moscow’s most reliable friend in the region and offers Russia its only port outside former Soviet territory.
In July, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced a tentative agreement, without much detail, that would coordinate US-Russian military strikes on the Nusra Front, Saudi-backed fighters who target Assad. The US isn’t dropping its call for Assad to go, but in exchange for help fighting ISIS and pacifying Syria, the US will help Russia attack the greatest threat to Assad’s survival. As important, this change provides Western-recognized legitimacy to Russia’s military role in the Middle East.
Further boosting Putin, this summer’s Brexit vote will probably help ease European sanctions on Russia and tensions over Putin’s manipulations in Ukraine. The UK has figured among the EU’s strongest anti-Russian voices, and now Russia can much more credibly claim to offer Putin’s Eurasian Customs Union as an alternative to an EU at growing risk of eventual breakdown and fragmentation. It also helps Putin make the case at home that a European future is not an aspiration worth having.
Turkey’s failed coup and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s subsequent crackdown on domestic enemies real and imagined also plays directly into Putin’s hands. Inside Turkey, thousands have been arrested, and more journalists have been jailed. Erdogan now says Turkey will restore its death penalty. European leaders warn that the crackdown will undermine Turkey’s eternal bid to join the EU, but Erdogan is not deterred. Tired of Western criticism and suspicious of Western intentions toward his government, Erdogan has already turned toward Putin, who is glad to have a strategically crucial NATO member who needs his political and economic support.
China has reason to extend a hand toward Russia too. Angry over a recent ruling from a Western court of arbitration that refuses to recognize China’s extensive territorial claims in the South China Sea, Beijing has invited Moscow to join in joint naval exercises there. As with Turkey, there is a limit to cooperation between Russia and China. The two governments compete more often than they cooperate. But they can and will continue to offer one another cover when relations with the US and Europe go sour.
Russia still has plenty of problems. Accusations of state-sanctioned doping has sidelined a significant number of its Olympic athletes. The oil price won’t rebound anytime soon, a serious source of longer-term concern for Russia. The country is not modernizing its economy, and its reliable international friends are few. But for now, things are going Putin’s way, and he will push his luck as far as he thinks it can go.
* Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and author of “Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World.” Find him on Twitter @ianbremmer.