The View From Asia

Keeping a wary eye on Putin's global rise

Three Asian commentators mull over Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent moves in a changing geopolitical landscape. Here are excerpts of their views in Asia News Network papers.

Russia poised to dominate

Harsha Kakar

The Statesman, India

Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014 and backed pro-Russia rebels in the Ukrainian civil war. In the aftermath, the US and European Union imposed sanctions. Russia began to hurt but Mr Vladimir Putin refused to back down.

Russia has been supporting Syria's Assad regime with weapons and equipment since the start of the conflict in 2011, while the US has been supporting anti-Assad rebels. In 2015, Russia commenced its military intervention in support of the regime, surprising the world.

When Western sanctions began impacting Russia, it turned to China for support. Simultaneously, it grew closer to Pakistan. Its relations with India, though close, appear to be affected by India's growing proximity to the US.

It has recently been claimed that Russia directly interfered in the US presidential election, resulting in the election of Mr Donald Trump, who is known to be pro-Russia. Last week, US President Barack Obama responded by expelling 35 Russian embassy staff. While Mr Putin avoided tit-for-tat actions, relations have plummeted to their lowest ebb since the Cold War.

Nothing has seemed to affect the Russian mindset as the past year ended. Russia emerges only stronger and more impactful.

Its military intervention in Syria changed the landscape of the war. With its offensive air support, it put Western-backed rebels on the defensive. The US was apprehensive of engaging with Russia in an open proxy war, which could have resulted in a Nato-Russian conflict. Every attempt to involve Russia in peace talks failed, while the fact that Russia had Iranian support altered regional dynamics.

Mr Putin, who leads an increasingly assertive Russia, must decide which global players he will throw in his lot with. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Russia and China, both currently anti-American, have grown closer. Russia has supported Chinese claims over the South China Sea and disputed an international tribunal's verdict. It has also conducted naval exercises with China in the region, cementing its support. With Chinese influence, Russia has moved closer to Pakistan, including agreeing on arms sales. India, though a major defence procurer from Russia, has been losing out on Russian support.

Russia openly threatened Nato and the US with deploying nuclear weapons and anti-ballistic missiles in nations that formed part of the erstwhile USSR. Its annexation of Crimea compelled the EU to seek solutions such as allowing Russia to keep Crimea while withdrawing its support for rebel groups in Ukraine.

Mr Trump's nomination of a pro-Russia ambassador and announcements of mending ties only enhance Russia's leverage. This would alter the dynamics in Europe and West Asia, and signal change for the sub-continent.

Russia now needs to make a choice of either remaining close to China, with whom Mr Trump already has issues, or the US. That it avoided a tit-for-tat over the diplomatic expulsions, coupled with Mr Putin's statements on awaiting the Trump presidency, indicates his likely choice. This could result in global realignment where Nato could lose its importance and sole existential purpose. In such a scenario, support of China and Pakistan may wane. This would benefit India.

As the late British statesman Lord Palmerston said, "in international relations, there are no permanent allies or enemies, only permanent interests". Russia, while continuing as a major international player this year, could alter its existing alignments based on its national interests. In either case, this year will be Russia's year, as its support will be the most sought after.

Putin and Trump, best friends?

Syed Mansur Hashim

The Daily Star, Bangladesh

Mr Vladimir Putin is changing his game. There will be a new man in the White House who has indicated that he intends to open a dialogue with his Russian counterpart to ease tensions around the world. And in that vein, Mr Putin's refusal to retaliate against the diplomatic expulsions is an olive branch to the new administration, saying "yes, the Kremlin is open to talks". We will, of course, have to wait to see if that is at all possible.

This is still the honeymoon period in Washington and Moscow. While we have lots of back-patting in both capitals about a fresh start for relations and a break from the new low in Russia-US relations under the Obama administration, the proof of the pudding will be how the US deals with a resurgent Russia, as well as with China, which recently deployed its Liaoning carrier group.

Russia is squarely aligned with China, and China is on the move. While Mr Trump has declared plans for a revamped military, what will be his approach if push comes to shove in the South China Sea? Will Mr Trump still call Mr Putin a "very smart man", and will Mr Putin reciprocate if another battle front opens up somewhere else?

Russia getting into Afghan act

Zahid Hussain

Dawn, Pakistan

The gathering in Moscow last week - the third in the series of consultations among Russia, China and Pakistan - underlines growing concern over the spillover effect of the Afghan crisis in the region. It is the latest assertion of Russia's diplomatic power amid growing frustration over the US failure to deliver peace in Afghanistan.

An underlying cause of anxiety is the growing threat of the militant Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group spreading its tentacles in the war-torn country. But it is still unclear whether the new alliance will be able to help reach a negotiated political solution to the Afghan conflict. Although Kabul has now been invited to the next round of talks, its exclusion from the earlier meetings cast a shadow over the process.

Not surprisingly, the US was not invited to the Moscow-initiated process. It is, however, premature to assume that the new nexus could replace the quadrilateral forum that comprised the US along with Pakistan, China and Afghanistan. Those talks have been suspended for almost a year, after the collapse of efforts to bring Afghan Taleban insurgents to the negotiating table.

It is quite apparent that no peace effort could succeed without the tacit support, if not active participation, of the US, which still has about 10,000 troops involved in counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan. Things have become more complicated with the political transition in Washington. Like other foreign policy issues, there is complete confusion over the Afghan policy in the soon-to-be-installed Trump administration.

Moscow's initiative to build a regional alliance against ISIS points to a changing geopolitical landscape. That has perhaps compelled the three countries to find a regional solution to the Afghan crisis, which directly affects their own security. It remains to be seen whether Kabul accepts the invitation to join the forum and whether it is willing to show some flexibility in its approach on the peace talks.

Although Russia may not be a fresh entrant on the Afghan scene, its initiative to build a regional alliance to counter the ISIS threat points to a new geopolitical alignment of forces. Interestingly, the meeting on Afghanistan followed trilateral talks in Moscow that included Turkey and Iran on the settlement of the Syrian crisis. The US was excluded from that meeting too, indicating that Moscow is taking the lead and considerably altering the balance of power in the international arena.

  • The View From Asia is a weekly compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 21 newspapers. For more, see
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 07, 2017, with the headline 'Keeping a wary eye on Putin's global rise'. Print Edition | Subscribe