No, yes, then perhaps. In the Syrian crisis, the West (and Obama’s leadership) has lost its face. Somebody else warmly thanks; China, for example, which has been shopping in Central Asia. Russia’s position is more complex. What does Putin really want? Meanwhile, the United Nations has once again showed its limits, and Pope Francis has actively taken on a global role in defence of peace. Let us consider these issues one-by-one.
China keeps gaining ground in Central Asia. On 4 September, just before St Petersburg’s G20, President Xi inaugurated the world’s second largest gas field in Galkynysh, Turkmenistan. Not only have the two states co-operated in the energy sector; they also have established a ‘strategic partnership’. This is noticeable also because Turkmenistan is otherwise rather isolated and enjoys poor relations with Western countries, including the USA. Italy does not even have an embassy in Ashgabat – a strategic mistake, also considering that Turkmenistan is fourth in the world in terms of natural gas reserves. The G20 in Russia has then further reinforced the Moscow-Beijing strategic partnership, especially in sectors such as defence and energy. Amongst others, China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has acquired a 20% stake in Russia’s Novatek’s liquefied natural gas’s arctic fields – a big deal, considering that China, Russia, the USA, Canada, Norway, are all competing for Arctic’s potentially massive natural and energy resources. After the G20, Xi has continued his ‘shopping tour’ in Kazakhstan, where CNPC purchased a $5 billion stake in the Kashagan oilfield, the world’s largest oil discovery in five decades. Xi’s visit also meant the signing of 22 agreements worth some $30 billion, mainly in the oil and gas sectors. Few hours later, the president’s triumphal march went on in Uzbekistan, with deals worth $15 billion. On 13 September, Mr Xi has concluded his Central Asian journey with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting in Kyrgyzstan; the SCO, of which both Russia and China are members, is becoming increasingly important and often seen as an ‘Asian answer’ to NATO. Central Asian states are members, too, and recently Russia and China have expressed positive views on Pakistan’s joining. India and Iran are observers…in other words; the SCO has become a magnet for many key Asian countries. But who is the SCO’s heavy weight? Russia or China? How is Russia reacting to China’s expansion into Central Asia?
Putin’s Russia is not isolated. On the tremendously divisive Syrian crisis, he could enlist the support of China, India, South Africa, Brazil (all the BRICS), all strongly opposed to any military intervention, together with Central Asian states, Iran, and even Indonesia. Italy and Germany stayed out, probably also because of their links with Russia’s gas industry. But as a matter of fact, most support for Putin is coming from Asia. Is Russia then becoming an Asian power? Shall we talk about ‘Putin the Asian’? Perhaps we should say ‘Putin the Eurasian’.
Mr Putin’s ‘master plan’ for his third mandate is in fact that of a ‘Eurasian Union’. Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan are already members of a Customs Union (since 2010), and Armenia has recently expressed interest in joining. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are too vulnerable to ‘survive’ isolated. Georgia and Ukraine are in the line of fire, between a weak EU and Russia. Russia’s president plans to forge a supranational union in which Russia would lead militarily and economically, hence politically. This way, China’s role would be downsized. Moreover, Russia, unlike China, enjoys excellent relations with India, with which there is extensive co-operation in the defence industry. But will Putin’s ‘Great Game’ succeed? Or will Russia become China’s junior partner? A lot of doubts remain. A new and detailed study by Alena Ledeneva (Cambridge University Press, 2013) illustrates how power in current Russia lies in the hands of Putin’s sistema, a locked informal network in which a clique of former collaborators of Mr Putin and intelligence (FSB) representatives holds the keys of the country. Will such informal elite carry on indulging in corruption and eventually lose sight of long-term objectives or will they be able to ‘reproduce’ themselves, manage external tensions and promote Russia’s expansion abroad? Given China’s rise in Central Asia, the question mark remains. Unless Putin will choose to face the USA in a new ‘Cold War’…
On the Western front, and after more than two years of bloodshed and hesitation, Barack Obama decided to intervene in Syria. After Britain’s ‘NO’, he set out to call for the Congress’s support. And then? Wasn’t he convinced that Assad had used chemical weapons? What happened? Better: what happened to his leadership? Where is the President of the United States?
Perhaps it is easy to criticise Obama’s lack of resolve right now. The big issue is that his foreign policy has hardly any sense of direction, especially in the Middle East. Unleashing the Arab Spring and ‘democratising Egypt’ meant that the latter is now oppressed by a tougher military rule (after being on a civil war’s brink), Syria is devastated, Libya and Tunisia still unstable, and Islamist groups have regained ground. Let us put it clearly: Mr Obama does not have a strategy, or a ‘grand strategy’, to use a diplomatic term. The ‘king’ is naked, so to speak; but to an attentive eye, he was naked as early as two years ago.
Not that European politics has fared better. Mr Cameron has been outvoted by the Commons, who probably have enough of foreign adventures as Washington’s junior partners. Would France replace Britain, as somebody suggested? Perhaps Mr Hollande wants to show assertiveness vis-a-vis Germany, which has never been in favour of any intervention in Syria. France’s unemployment rate in July was 11% though – Hollande would better refocus on domestic affairs. The main source of disappointment, however, is that both the EU and the UN have once again showed their hapless weakness. No late resort to the United Nations would in fact restore their credibility: they should act as the representatives of the world’s peoples, and not as an arena for ‘great powers’ games.
In conclusion, while China and Russia flex their muscles and the West shows inconsistency, something could be added on Pope Francis. Also on the Syrian crisis, his warmth, charisma, and unconditional support to peace inspire hope well beyond the community of believers. At the same time, his deep concern about Syria raises worries: what can he see that we are unable to glimpse?