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Friday, 12 August 2016

Is Putin preparing an August surprise?

I want you to stop worrying about Donald Trump for a moment and turn your attention instead to one of his greatest fans.

Vladimir Putin is a master of global power politics, and there are growing signs that he may be about to pull off another of his feared August surprises. Eight years ago, while the world’s attention was focused on the Olympics in Beijing, he went to war in Georgia. The territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been outside Georgian control ever since.

This year, while we’re marvelling at the record-breaking feats of gymnasts, divers, cyclists and others in Rio, it’s troops in Ukraine who have been put on high alert in response to a military build-up on the Russian side of the border. Just consider how propitious the environment must look from Moscow: not only are we caught up in Olympic-mania, but in Washington, political leaders are focused on the forthcoming presidential election, and in Europe, the backwash from Brexit leaves little time for anything else.

For Mr Putin, it must look like the perfect time to play two of his strongest cards. First, he can tweak the EU’s tail over its continuing migration crisis by flirting with President Erdoğan of Turkey, on whom the EU depends to shut off the flow of migrants and refugees from Turkey to Greece. (Thanks to the deal signed last March, the numbers arriving in Greece are down from 1,500-2,000 per day to under fifty. The numbers crossing from north Africa to Italy, on the other hand, are higher than ever.)

The Russian president is doing what all national leaders claim to do: acting in what he perceives to be his country’s best interests, maximising its influence and securing its borders. The problem is that his definition of Russia’s best interests often runs counter to what many in the West would regard as the interests of international peace and security. Invading neighbours, for example, is not generally thought of as good practice.

President Erdoğan is seriously displeased with what he perceives to be the West’s less than sympathetic attitude after last month’s attempted coup. So what could be more natural than for President Putin to coo a few warm words into his ear as a way of ruffling NATO’s feathers and injecting yet another note of uncertainty into the ongoing catastrophe in Syria.

Mr Putin is backing the Assad regime while Mr Erdoğan is backing various rebel groups. Might that change? Probably not, although the two men both regard IS and its affiliates as a threat and seem to think that there may be some opportunities for them to work together in Syria.

The two countries have certainly come a long way since Turkey shot down a Russian warplane close to the Syrian border last November – President Putin told his Turkish counterpart during his visit to St Petersburg this week that he wants relations to get back to a ‘pre-crisis level of cooperation’, while President Erdoğan said ‘the Moscow-Ankara axis will be restored.’

Which brings us to Ukraine. President Obama is burnishing his legacy; Brussels is obsessed with Brexit. A perfect time, therefore, for Moscow to tighten its grip on Crimea, which it seized from Ukraine in the aftermath of the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.  There’s been a sudden upsurge in military activity along the border – it could be a prelude to something bigger, or perhaps it’s just another example of Mr Putin’s love of keeping his adversaries on their toes.

According to the Russian analyst Lilia Shevtsova of the Brookings Institution: ‘From the Brexit vote to the Turkish coup, recent global events have dealt the Kremlin a strong hand.’ It would be asking too much of Mr Putin to expect him not to play at least some of the cards he holds. The test for the West – one that will be of crucial interest especially to Russia’s Baltic neighbours – is how to calibrate its response.