Vladimir Putin is back to his old self, or at least that is what his propagandists and the man himself would like us to believe. For the first time in over two and a half years, Putin ventured on an overnight trip abroad. While Russia’s focus in 2022 has been on Ukraine and Europe, Putin headed in a different direction, traveling deep into Central Asia for a visit to Tajikistan. This was followed by a trip to the hermit nation of Turkmenistan for the Summit of Caspian States where he would be joined by the leaders of the nations that border the Caspian Sea. Putin’s trip abroad was likely scheduled to coincide with the G7 meeting in Bavaria and NATO Summit in Madrid where leaders from the world’s most powerful democracies further outlined their plans to isolate Russia and lend greater military support to Ukraine.
The Altar of Ambition – Sacrificial Soldiers
While Putin wanted to portray that he, and by extension Russia, was back to diplomatic business as usual with his trip, anyone who has followed the war in Ukraine knows that is not true. Putin appeared to convey an attitude of self-assurance, calmness, and complete confidence while in Central Asia. He looked the part, but with Putin looks are often deceiving. What is really going on in the Kremlin is anyone’s guess. While Russia has made incremental gains in their Donbas offensive, those gains have come at great cost. Putin’s calmness may have been a sign that the Russian Army has done enough to call their campaign a victory. Alternatively, he could be masking his displeasure behind a veil of diplomatic professionalism.
How much longer Russia can sustain their current offensive is not known. One thing is for certain, if it takes a month’s long slog with high casualties to destroy villages, towns and cities which are of transient value, then Russia is on the road to military oblivion. The war continues, but not because the Russian Army is achieving their objectives in the Donbas. It continues because Putin’s ego does not allow him to admit failure. If that means thousands of Russian soldiers are sacrificed on the altar of Putin’s ambition, then so be it.
The Pariah State – Putin’s Creation
From the Russian perspective, while the situation on the battlefield in Ukraine has improved, the same cannot be said of their diplomatic situation. Putin’s war in Ukraine has made Russia a pariah state. To see how far they have fallen in power and prestige internationally consider their strategic partners before and after 2014. That was the year when Russia occupied Crimea and militarily began their support for pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas. Prior to that time, Russia was a member of the G8. A valued, if deeply flawed partner with the western world, Russia was welcomed at these meetings despite Putin’s misgivings about NATO and reciprocal feelings by alliance members towards Russia. They were also considered a “strategic partner” of NATO. Now Russia is viewed as an adversary rather than an ally. Thus, while most of the world’s most powerful countries were represented at the G7 and NATO summits, Russia was cultivating relations with such lightweights as Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. How the mighty have fallen.
These days Russia has an asymmetric relationship with its closest allies. The most important of which is China. Unfortunately for Russia they are now stuck selling oil to China at a discounted rate. The “friendship without limits” that Putin and China’s leader Xi Jinping agreed to just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is one sided. China is one of the top two economies in the world. Any deals they negotiate with Russia will favor Chinese interests. Except for India, which remains largely neutral, Russia is stuck with China as its only powerful ally. The relationship is one-sided and will only grow more so as Russia’s economy weakens. The friendship is without limits in the sense that Russia will have to do whatever China wants it to.
As for Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, Putin’s first trip abroad in several years to these two countries is telling. Tajikistan’s economy is worth $1.89 billion dollars. If it were an American state, economically Tajikistan would rank dead last. To get an idea of just how small its economy is, consider that the smallest economy of any American state is Vermont’s at $34 billion dollars. Turkmenistan is not that much better. At $49.8 billion dollars its economy is only larger than the states of Vermont and Wyoming. Putin has reduced Russia internationally to a mere shell of its former self.
Ship Shape – Sailing The Caspian
While in Turkmenistan, Putin was part of the Summit of Caspian States, a talking shop that included not only the host country, but also leaders from Azerbaijan, Iran, and Kazakhstan. Putin is not happy with Kazakhstan’s President, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who flatly stated at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum a couple of weeks ago, that he disagreed with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine because it violated the country’s territorial integrity. Kazakhstan has reason to fear Russia since Putin sent troops there in January to support the government in quelling domestic unrest. Tokayev has obviously taken the measure of Russia’s performance in Ukraine and decided he would speak out anyway. What did Putin do about it? Nothing, because he is in no position to involve Russia in another dispute with a neighboring country.
Putin did announce a couple of modest successes at the summit. One was a Caspian Film Festival which for some reason he thought would be a noteworthy accomplishment. It is doubtful such a film festival would be anything more than a propaganda tool for authoritarian regimes in the region. There was also the announcement of the first Caspian cruise ship which would leave from the Russian city of Astrakhan later this year. A pleasure cruise on the Caspian for Russians is not the same as visiting Paris, Rome, or London. It might be better for nationalistically inclined, pro-Putin Russia. They will get to sail the inland sea on a ship named after Putin’s favorite Russian hero, Peter the Great. Since Russians now have limited options while traveling abroad, they can enjoy this opportunity to visit some of their closest allies. That is if they have enough money to afford the journey as sanctions slowly strangle the Russian economy.