The year that is end has brought Russia to the center of the international stage. From its role in the war in Ukraine to massive intervention in Syria, the leap has stunned the West. The protagonist is no longer just Putin, but the whole of Russia. And the difference is not insignificant.
If only a few years ago the Time magazine chose Vladimir Putin as Person of the Year, today the Russia bear, symbol of the whole countr, would deserve that cover. 2015 was the year of Russia. From the large-scale military intervention in Syria to the role in the conflict in Ukraine, from the fight against international terrorism to energy issues, there is no sphere of international politics where the Moscow bear roar doesn’t echo.
If the US and EU respectively extended the list and prolonged the economic sanctions against Russia for its role in the Ukrainian crisis, on the other hand it’s clear to all Western leaders that in international affairs they cannot keep on pretending that Russia doesn’t exist.
Here are the events and the moves that lead Russia to the role of international superpower.
The year of Russia was the year of the wars indeed. In February, while in Minsk the heads of state of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany gathered to end the war in Donbass, regular troops of the Russian army under the command of General Alexandr Lentsov, deputy commander of Russian ground forces, fought against the Ukrainian army in Debaltseve. It was one of the most striking episodes of the Russian intervention in the war of Donbass, that set two new key points in post-Soviet Russia: first, the former USSR area is still in the orbit of Moscow and, second, that the Kremlin would no longer tolerate America and Europe widening their sphere of influence next to the Russian borders. In fact, today Putin sits at the same table with Poroshenko, Hollande and Merkel in deciding the fate of Ukraine.
The conflict that broke out in 2014 in east Ukraine seems now just a big test of what we would see in the year that is about to end. There Russia has maintained its covert military, denied indefinitely to have put the boots in the Donbass, and protected with state secret the body bags returning home. A year later, in Syria, the Kremlin-controlled news networks are pleased to show the footage of Russian fighters in action. If the one in Donbass was a disguised war, the one in Syria is a flamboyant one. And, on the other hand, beyond the enemy lines, there is always the same enemy: America and the West.
From the table in Minsk, to the little table of the buffet room of the G20, to the desk of the ultramodern control room with monitors showing live images of airstrikes in Syria, the leap was anything but short. Passing through the attacks in Paris – that reshuffled the cards in the fight against ISIL –, and the downing of the Su-27 by Turkish jets – that put it head to head with a NATO member for the first time since the end of the cold war – Russia is not the same anymore. And this comes at a cost.
Military spending has broken through this year the figure of $ 50 billion, five-fold in less than ten years. The impressive program of modernization of the Russian armed forces, launched by Putin in 2010, for the sum of 700 billion dollars, is approaching its goal of 400 ICBMs, 600 new planes, a thousand helicopters, 2,300 tanks, 28 submarines and 50 ships by 2020.
The result of a renewed military power, an aggressive international politics and a clear challenge to American dominance is a Russia that goes beyond Putin. A Putinism that will survive Putin. A country that will have its weight among other superpowers even when it will not be ruled by the former unknown KGB agent who became president and most powerful man in the world. It’s time to start getting used to.