Michael Burleigh

Michael Burleigh is an historian and commentator on world affairs. His 12 books include The Third Reich: A New History (Samuel Johnson Prize 2001) ; Moral Combat; Small Wars and Faraway Places and The Best of Times, Worst of Times: The World As It Is which appears in November.


Pity the forthcoming travails of the hypothetical Orlov family. That would be father Alexei, his wife Evgeniya, and their spoiled brat daughter Oksana. There they were, happily shopping in Bond Street or the Rue de Passy, for the life of a GRU or SVR officer in London or Paris has its off-duty compensations. Try the salt beef sandwich counter in Selfridges or the dual Novikov restaurants in Berkeley Street to witness their leather-jacketed bulk and blank eyes at close quarters.

Following the attempted murders in Salisbury, the Orlovs and 120 of their colleagues will be heading home – as, in the opposite direction, will 150 of their western counterparts expelled from Russia. With their identities known and their covers blown (for Alexei Orlov was never just the protocol officer) Evgeniya and Oksana will have to make do with postings where the host nations will not investigate their backgrounds. Pity Evgeniya and Oksana searching for that special frock or handbag in Ashgabat or Ouagadougou. The domestic grief Alexei will suffer is unlikely to be pleasant.

As a former spymaster, President Putin will feel the Orlovs’ pain, but his response will be on the global stage (although he’ll pursue s more personal vengeance towards the more cartoon-blimpish members of the British government). He will also have noted those eight EU members, as well as Israel and Turkey, which expelled no Russian ‘diplomats’.

We can safely rule out (very probably) any resort by Putin to the new generation of hypersonic missiles, torpedoes and laser guns, which he advertised in videos shortly before his re-election last month. Even though one or two of these ‘science fiction’ weapons were part of UnHerd’s end-2017 “under-reported” series, arms experts say that they probably don’t work1.

Both Putin and Xi may chuck Kim economic lifelines to bolster his confidence in any summit with Trump.
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Putin’s main response is likely to be strategic – focusing in the parts of the world where Russia (and its senior partner, China) are already most involved. He might start by making concessions in eastern Ukraine, where he has achieved his objective of sowing dissension from Kiev, while making difficulties elsewhere.

(1) North Korea

The most obvious place to start is North Korea. Expect Putin to soon host Kim Jong-un, following up on the latter’s visit to President Xi. That signals that China and Russia have interests in North Korea (Russia borders it on the Tumen River) and that Trump can’t unilaterally meddle there with impunity. Both Putin and Xi may chuck Kim economic lifelines to bolster his confidence in any summit with Trump.

(2) Iran

Trump is also threatening to rip up the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with Iran, if the three European signatories (the UK, France and Germany) can’t ‘fix’ the deal by 12th May2. The Europeans are trying to find a form of words to mollify Trump (who they privately compare to the demented member of a family which owns a joint holiday home – which he periodically threatens to burn down). President Macron will be trying to persuade Trump to change his mind on the Iran deal when he visits Washington later this month.

Trump seems to forget that China and Russia also signed the 2015 deal, and that Russia is a military partner of Iran in Syria, while Iran is also pivotal to China’s ‘One Belt’ Initiative. Putin has already told Ayatollah Khamenei that he “won’t betray Iran” in the interests of a grand bargain with the US. China is also selling Iran advanced weapons, and buying its oil and gas.

(3) Turkey

Moscow can also use Turkey to cause the US major headaches in Syria and on a two day visit to Turkey, starting today, Putin will take part in the ground breaking ceremony for the new nuclear plant at Akkuyu, before joining a summit with President Erodgan and Iran’s President Rouhani.  Syria, as well as the US challenge to the 2015 nuclear deal, are likely to be topics of interest.. Having reduced his own forces in Tell Rifaat3, Putin will probably urge the Turks to venture from Afrin across the Euphrates to Manbij, where the Kurdish YPG host 2,000 US special forces ‘advisors’. A clash between Turkey and the US would be like an early Christmas gift to Putin, whose strategic aim is to prise Turkey out of Nato.

And on this very topic...
Don't be distracted by endless talk of Russian bots. Prising Turkey out of NATO is Putin's main aim

By Michael Burleigh

(4) Qatar

While we are still in the Middle East, let’s not forget the nation hosting the World Cup after Russia. Qatar’s Emir – Tamim bin Hamad al Thani – visited Moscow in late March (and not to talk about football). Thanks to the ineptitude of the Saudis and Emiratis, a besieged Qatar is well on the way to joining the Iranian-Turkish camp, which also includes Russia. It will help Putin in getting Syrian rebel groups it bankrolls to the peace table with Assad, thereby isolating Saudi-backed rebel groups. Like Turkey, Qatar also wants to buy Russian armaments, after seeing live fire demos in Syria and Ukraine, and as the biggest sovereign Gulf investor in Russia already. Its swanky Qatar Airways will help modernise the third and fourth largest Russian airports.

(5) Libya and Egypt

Russia has also been quietly active in Libya4, where Putin supports the military strongman General Khalifa Haftar. Moscow is using basing rights it has acquired in neighbouring Egypt to pump in arms and special forces, with a view to sidelining the US, discombobulating the EU, and winning oil, defence and railway contracts should Libya ever achieve stability.

(6) Subverting elections

Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has offered a leftist, anti-American politics to Mexican voters and is thought to be the latest ‘beneficiary’ of Moscow’s endless appetite for ‘helping’ in other nations’ elections. Photo via PA.

Meddling in elections is also a cheap option for Putin. The focus can be shifted too, now that Europe’s major electoral cycles are largely over. There are eight big elections in Latin America this year, including Brazil and especially Mexico. Before they left office, both the former US National Security Advisor H R McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned of Russian interference in Mexico, where Moscow supports the anti-American left-wing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador (who has led the polls since last October for an election happening on 1st July). With Trump in power, it may be third time lucky for ‘AMLO’ as he is known.

(7) Africa

Finally, the smooth and capable Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, has recently been busy touring what Trump called “shithole countries”, and in the wake of Tillerson’s vain attempt to repair relations (Tillerson was called home from Africa and sacked before he’d finished). The Russians want to sell arms (to Angola, Mozambique, Uganda, and Zimbabwe) and nuclear power plants (especially to Nigeria) while offering their expertise in counter terrorism against Boko Haram as well as in Chad and Somalia. Maybe some of the relocated GRU/SVR expellees will find their skills with nerve agents useful there?

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In the short term, Putin has many options to cause trouble, though they will elicit counter responses that will further entrench ‘fortress Russia’. He will not be too bothered by being cut off from western finance – though this will limit his ability to modernise and diversify Russia’s economy – since China can surely help, but that only underlines Russian dependency and ‘tier two’ status in the evolving new order. As long as Xi does not make that explicit, Putin can pursue his grand illusions5

FOOTNOTES
  1.  The Intersection Project outlined the weaknesses of the Kremlin’s new military technologies in an article last month – referring to them as “straying into science fiction”.
  2.  ‘Fixing’ means including Iran’s ballistic missile programme – in a separate fresh agreement – and extending the 10-15 years ‘sunset’ clauses for when Iran can legitimately resume nuclear research
  3.  For some more background on this subject, read Metin Gurcan’s “Deciphering Russia’s delivery of Tell Rifaat to Turkey” from Al-Monitor on 29th March.
  4.  See background reporting in the New York Times from February: “In openly courting General Haftar, the Kremlin was testing one of the incoming American president’s guiding foreign policy assumptions — that he could work with Mr. Putin to tackle thorny issues in the Muslim world — and instead sent a signal to the world that Russia would continue to pursue its own interests there. Yet, as has often been the case when it comes to Mr. Putin, there has been little to no resistance on Mr. Trump’s watch. The president himself has said nothing, and the State Department seems at odds with the Pentagon’s wary assessment of the Russian threat.”.
  5.  The best book on Putin is Michel Eltchaninoff, Inside the Mind of Vladimir Putin(London 2018).