Monday, October 05, 2015

Putin takes on the Sunni Arabs and the target is the oil price

The Russian President has a pattern of incredibly reckless behaviour- the attacks on Georgia, Ukraine, the threats against NATO and all of the rest of it. Yet in a coup-de-main that exceeds almost all of his recent gambles, Putin seems to be set on avoiding the consequences of his Ukrainian misadventure. However, not for the first time, both Putin and the West may be misreading each other. The conventional wisdom amongst the Putinologists is that that the entry into the Syrian imbroglio is a successful attempt to breach the wall of isolation that has been imposed against him since his invasion of Ukraine. In this school of thought, the Russian support for Assad is largely a bluff, and is essentially an attempt to widen the negotiation by catching the West once again off guard.

However, unlike in Ukraine, Russia does have some short term and attainable goals in mind.

The fact is that the intervention in the Middle East is a serious attempt to challenge the United States and Saudi grip on the oil price. By creating a de facto alliance with Iran, Russia has responded to what they saw as Saudi aggression in keeping the oil price low. Russia now has the means as well as the will to destabilize all of the Sunni Monarchies in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia itself. 

This is not about Syria, it is about oil.

It is also a high stakes gamble that could end up causing a direct military confrontation between NATO and its Arab allies and Russia and its new Shia allies in Iran, Iraq and Syria. Now we see why Russia has been courting Egypt- for Egyptian neutrality will maintain the pressure on the Gulf and avoid Russian- but not Western- distractions in North Africa, especially Libya. In the Russian mind the potential instability in the absolutist monarchies is an opportunity to create a Russian-Iranian axis that will push up the price of crude and thus ease the stranglehold on the Russian economy.

Perhaps then he can either resume his work in Ukraine and finally defeat the Ukrainian Army, which has so far proven so resilient; or the failure to create actual reform in Kyiv will push the country back into the Russian orbit. Certainly the political class of Ukraine has yet to live up to the aspirations place upon it by the Maidan revolutionaries. 

So Putin intends to squeeze out the West entirely from Syria and then persuade the oil producers that a deal with Russia is now very much in their own interests- with the threat of revolution, if they do not comply with Russian wishes.

In all of this there is one small problem of course: Russia might face a disastrous defeat. Nevertheless Putin is prepared to roll the dice once more. The West should recognize the implacable nature of the regime in the Kremlin and be prepared, if necessary, to increase the pressure of sanctions.   

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