Betting big on tinpot Middle Eastern dictatorships will not end well for Putin

Russia is making common cause with Iran and its Persian Gulf neighbours in a bid to kickstart the much touted ‘new world order’, albeit at the risk of becoming entirely beholden to West Asia’s main players.

Slapdash and underwhelming as Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s attempted power grab was, it lay waste to Vladimir Putin’s strongman persona and further debilitated his dysfunctional politburo.

Seeing as he is not one to let bygones be bygones, the Russian president’s uncharacteristically muted response could be a form of psychological affliction intended to keep the hot-dog vendor turned billionaire catering mogul looking over his shoulder in paranoia until his day of reckoning finally comes.

Either way, such inaction on the part of Putin to his gravest face-off yet as commander-in-chief is emblematic of Wagner’s indispensable role in Ukraine. It is no secret that the full-scale invasion has not gone according to plan, however, the use of non-state actors and private military companies (PMCs) in theatres of conflict is gaining currency.

Prigozhin’s mercenaries, many of whom are convicted felons duped into putting their lives on the line for early release, have emerged far more battle-hardened and menacing to Kyiv than Russia’s demoralised army.

Interestingly, the Wagner boss had not gone into hiding following the high stakes stunt he pulled nor has his ill-gotten wealth been expropriated by the Kremlin as retribution.

It is worth recalling that Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko acted as a go-between in the immediate aftermath of the insurrection and purportedly managed to convince Putin against taking out his “chef” on a whim. The former restaurateur’s banishment to Minsk was nonetheless short-lived, having brazenly shown up all smiles for photo ops with event attendees at the Russia-Africa Summit in his native Saint Petersburg a week ago. 

Deciding not to make an example of Prigozhin for “stabbing him in the back” might be perceived, in the eyes of Western policymakers, as Putin exercising a degree of self-restraint when he can least afford any more fallouts or controversies within his ever-shrinking inner circle.

By contrast, the optics of allowing a treasonous act to go unpunished take on a life of their own in Middle Eastern jurisdictions characterised by one-man rule. Its theocratic leaders now smell blood in the water and almost certainly view the self-styled tsar as yesterday’s man.

The ‘mutual respect’ cliché

As Russian diplomats gallivant all over the Global South like snake oil salesman and cajole fellow developing nations into bolstering cooperation with their pariah government, they routinely spout nonsensical claims about bilateral ties being underpinned by mutual respect and non-interference.

Whether it be Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa or the Indian subcontinent, Moscow has sought to one-up legacy Western powers by tacitly dissociating its frantic outreach from hegemonic aspirations or imperial undertones.

To appreciate the insincerity of this foreign policy recalibration, one need not look any further than Central Asia and the South Caucasus. Both regions are still reeling from the aftershocks of Soviet occupation, not only with respect to plundered natural resources and ongoing border disputes but also the prevalence of mini-oligarchies enriched on the back of ordinary folk.

The alarming brain drain and dire social inequality smaller republics like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Armenia contend with has seen remittances from their overseas diaspora accounting for the lion’s share of annual gross domestic product (GDP).

Tethering their economies to Russia decades after achieving independence has proven a recipe for disaster and ought to serve as a cautionary tale for non-CIS states on a similarly suicidal trajectory.

Repeated rounds of Western sanctions have bled the Kremlin’s coffers dry and inflicted unprecedented damage on non-oil sectors – including construction, retail and mining in which a disproportionate volume of guest workers from the poorer “-stans” are employed.

Meanwhile, disaffected Russian youth flocking to ex-USSR colonies in droves exude an unmistakable air of superiority and entitlement despite being shunned by the rest of the international community.

When it comes to Russia’s engagement with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), however, the unwritten code of not meddling in each other’s internal affairs carries a lot of weight and adds greater impetus to the six sheikhdoms’ long-standing fatigue with finger-wagging by the West.

Gravitating towards an increasingly isolated and financially-crippled Moscow speaks volumes of the benevolent monarchs’ rebellious streak vis-à-vis the United States and other supposed guarantors of regional security, such as the United Kingdom and France, with whom they are growing equally disenfranchised over human rights criticism.

Shifting sands in the Middle East

Arguably the most seismic development to have come about of late in the world’s “power keg” was the Beijing-brokered détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The arch-rivals’ full-fledged restoration of diplomatic relations is not so much a case of putting their historic animosity to bed as their shared disdain for outside forces’ toxic intervention in the region.

The overriding consensus, in Riyadh and Tehran alike, is that dialogue and self-sufficiency are more conducive to ensuring pan-MENA stability than seeking military cover from third parties or buying into baseless fearmongering by arms-exporting juggernauts with obvious skin in the game.    

At the same time, the blowback from their indiscriminate bombardment of neighbouring Yemen made the House of Saud and its satellites ultimately realise that it was more affordable for them to lose face than to continue losing the proxy war they waged.

Just like the indigenous Houthi rebels managed to force the hand of the Saudi-led coalition by striking legitimate targets within the Kingdom’s interior courtesy of Iranian-supplied weaponry, Kyiv’s counter-offensive is slowly but surely beginning to imperil national security in mainland Russia and unnerve its top brass.

That said and irrespective of looming retaliatory attacks Russian civilians face, Putin is unlikely to entertain any kind of negotiated settlement given his winner-take-all approach towards the bloodbath in Ukraine.

From Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu visiting North Korea hat in hand at the end of July to the president himself missing out on the upcoming BRICS conference in South Africa for fear of arrest, Moscow continues to project weakness and desperation throughout West Asia.

If anything, the normalisation drive between Syria and the GCC, barring Qatar, will breathe new life into the Arab League and encourage member states to deal with foreign powerhouses as a collective entity.

Should this materialise, rest assured that the Chinese will not be the only ones looking upon the Russians as so-called “junior partners”. The United Arab Emirates, in particular, has already accrued considerable leverage over Putin and his cronies by becoming their de facto workaround for sanctions-busting and money-laundering.

The Kremlin, in turn, is doubling down on efforts to attract foreign direct investment from the aforementioned, energy-rich autocracies and not necessarily going into this troublesome alliance with its eyes wide open.

Short-circuiting the launch of streamlined e-visas to the start of August and designating Iran, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia as “friendly states” with easier access to the country is one such of example of salvaging whatever tourism revenues they can before the off-season.

Notwithstanding, petrodollars flowing in galore from the Persian Gulf when Russian society is more fractured than ever could pave the way for a resurgence of fundamentalist leanings which fuelled Chechen separatism in the nineties and ensuing acts of terrorism across the federation.

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