Campaign diary

Putin’s victory tour

Screenshot (3633)

A Russian soldier holds Assad back so Putin can walk ahead of him

by Sarah Hurst

Vladimir Putin demonstrated to Russians yesterday that he is the leader of the world’s most important superpower, making a surprise visit to Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and then seeing his ruthless counterparts Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. As Donald Trump appears to be a bumbling idiot on the world stage, enraging Muslims by recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Putin is happy to take up the mantle of political mediator who backs up his words with brute force.

Russian bases staying

At an air base in Syria Putin appeared with Assad and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, and for the umpteenth time announced that Russian troops would begin a withdrawal from Syria, but also that Russian bases would remain in the country. Putin has declared a total victory over ISIS in Syria, although he has mainly bombed civilians and rebels fighting Assad, and he has also admitted that groups of ISIS saboteurs may re-emerge. Russia’s bombing of Syria has not stopped, and Putin vowed a “never before seen response” if the “terrorists” continue to fight.

Commentators noted that Russian troops committed a serious breach of protocol by physically holding Assad back at one point so that Putin could walk in front of him. Putin has an image to maintain ahead of his election for Russian TV cameras, but on the ground in Syria everything will be much harder. Boasting that Syrians are putting up portraits of Putin and not Trump overlooks the fact that they are forced to do so.

Nuclear plants and S-400s

In Egypt Putin promised to help Sisi build a nuclear power plant, as he has done in many countries. Whether this will ever happen is another matter. Russia is currently building a nuclear plant in Belarus, which has been fraught with accidents, and has caused enormous concern to neighbouring Lithuania. Considering that Belarus suffered most from the aftermath of Chernobyl, the project seems like a terrible idea. Also, Russia can’t afford to conduct wars and build nuclear power plants when its Reserve Fund is due to dwindle to nothing by the end of this year.

At a press conference in Ankara Putin and Erdogan both denounced Trump’s Jerusalem decision. Turkey has seen mass protests against it, fired up by anti-Semitic rhetoric, and Erdogan has described Israel as a terrorist state. During Putin’s visit Erdogan also said that Russian and Turkish officials would meet soon to finalise Turkey’s purchase of S-400 surface-to-air missile systems – a snub to NATO, which Turkey has been drifting further and further away from.

Putin desperately needs to fire up Russian voters to try to achieve a relatively respectable turnout for his rigged election on March 18 – the Kremlin is even pondering making the day a holiday to encourage people to come to the polls (presumably to celebrate the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea). His whistlestop tour of the Muslim world may help domestically, but the United States has already found that war in the Middle East comes at an enormous cost, and this is something that Putin won’t be able to avoid either, no matter how loudly his propaganda channels hail his successes.

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