Putin’s strategic progress through Iran, Turkey and the Middle East

Forbes | The sanguinary strongman of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, created a stir recently by declaring during a television interview that he was ready to step down. The country had needed people like him ‘to fight and put things in order’, he said, but now that there was order the ‘time had come for changes in the Chechen Republic’. He went on to say that the choice of his successor would be made in Moscow. It didn’t take long for the Kremlin to reject Kadyrov’s quasi-resignation and for Russian media commentators to accuse him of gamesmanship. He was likely holding out for extra subsidies. Or perhaps he was pre-empting any attempt by Putin to disown him ahead of Russia’s Presidential elections in March. (The Russian populace has a very low opinion of Mr.Kadyrov). Either way, Kadyrov’s capricious gestures bring to the fore the strategic situation in the Caucasus that the West should take very seriously.

Chechnya has indeed been effectively if brutally put in order and brought to heel by Moscow. As the Kremlin consolidates control over the Russian Caucasus, a return to the Soviet-era alignment of the entire region is within reach. Only this time it’s worse. Nato’s eastern flank is non-existent. Both Iran and Turkey have tilted pro-Moscow – the two neighboring countries that could foment trouble against Russian hegemony. Instead Mr. Putin is nowadays chairing meetings with their leaders about the fate of the Middle East. Caught in the squeeze are the countries in between, namely Georgia and Azerbaijan.

To all appearances, they won’t hold out for very long. Their one geographical conduit to Western support which would be overland via Turkey remains barely ajar and may close altogether if Ankara continues to fall under Moscow’s spell. Already Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has caved in to Mr.Putin on what were once red-line issues – in Syria where Erdogan’s nemesis, Assad, looks like surviving, and in the Crimea where the Turkic Crimean Tatars are being brutally mistreated by Moscow’s proxies. Meanwhile Russian jets bomb at will those Syrian opposition forces supported by Ankara. The fact is Mr.Erdogan is unlikely to let Nato regain a functional foothold in his country while he’s in charge. He’s too terrified that Western demands for higher standards of political rights will quickly lead to his ouster. Therefore he has little option but to heed the Kremlin’s directives.

In short, Mr.Putin is eating up the strategic chessboard. Putin is, as Douglas Schoen’s new book is titled, on the march. (Putin On The March: The Russian President’s Unchecked Global Advance.) If, as looks dangerously possible, both Georgia and Azerbaijan fall into the old Cold War alignment the West loses two crucial hurdles to Russian power and much else besides. Azerbaijan supplies the region’s only non-Mideastern oil to the world (via Turkey), in particular to Europe. That oil, under Moscow’s sway, will provide additional strategic leverage and revenue for the Kremlin, while making a nonsense of any sanctions regime. Georgia currently acts as a bridge for the Central Asian Stans to sell their oil and gas to the world. That too will fall under a Russian veto and will serve to empower the Kremlin further. From Central Asia through the Caucasus down deep into the Middle East and along the EU’s borders a new Easter Bloc will form, is forming, much larger than before and far more ready to meddle with the West and its allies. And this at a time when we are more divided than ever we were while facing the Warsaw Pact, both among ourselves and in mounting a coherent response to strategic threats.

Kadyrov’s threat to resign therefore might put pressure on a crucial link in the Kremlin’s entire strategy of southward hegemony to which Chechnya’s compliance is of paramount importance. But he may be right. He has fulfilled his bloody task of subduing his province for Mr.Putin. The game is a bigger one now.