Putin: opportunist or master strategist?

Vladimir Putin has been playing brinkmanship in Syria, Ukraine, and elsewhere. Is the Russian president a master strategist or are his moves merely opportunistic? Gideon Rachman discusses the question with Neil Buckley the FT’s East Europe editor.

By Gideon Rachman

The assault on the Iraqi city of Mosul that began this week underlines the fact that the next three months will be a perilous period in international politics. Fighting is intensifying in the Middle East. Tensions are rising between Russia and the west. And relations between China and its Asian neighbours are getting edgier. All this is happening while the US is diverted by the Trump-Clinton melodrama and the transition to a new president.

Vladimir Putin votes in parliamentary elections

The record low turnout in Russia’s parliamentary elections last month was blamed in part on deliberate attempts by the authorities to suppress voter interest, in the belief this would help the ruling, pro-Kremlin United Russia party. Elections were brought forward from December to September, when many urban Russians prefer harvesting vegetables in the autumn sun at their dachas at weekends to staying in the city to vote.

But a group of opposition candidates says the turnout reflected fundamental disillusionment among Russians with the ruling regime – and the whole political process. If so, that represents an important and potentially worrying shift for the Kremlin. Read more

Three weeks after president Vladimir Putin accused Ukraine of attempting to launch sabotage missions into the Russian-annexed Crimean peninsula, the all-out Russian invasion that was feared has not materialised.

But Mr Putin has managed to secure one-on-one meetings at this weekend’s G20 summit in Hangzhou with Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s François Hollande – and may “informally” meet US president Barack Obama. This may have been his aim all along. Read more

Russia and Ukraine: a new crisis?

Russia has been back in the spotlight recently, after President Putin replaced his long-standing chief of staff Sergei Ivanov. Meanwhile, tensions have mounted in eastern Ukraine, prompting fears of a new Russian offensive. Russia is still heavily involved in Syria. Is a new crisis building? Gideon Rachman speaks with Kathrin Hille, the FT’s Moscow bureau chief, and Neil Buckley, Eastern Europe editor.

By Gideon Rachman

Last week, as President Obama entertained the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner and Britain indulged in a bizarre debate about whether Hitler was a Zionist, more than 200 people were killed in a brutal bombardment of Aleppo. The breakdown of Syria’s fragile ceasefire promises yet more suffering in a five-year long war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and created millions of refugees.

Russia’s new nationalism
What are the origins of Eurasianism in Russia and how has it come to occupy a central place in Kremlin thinking today? Charles Clover, FT China correspondent and former Moscow bureau chief discusses his new book, Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism with Gideon Rachman.

Under what circumstances might Russia cut off gas deliveries to Europe for a prolonged period of time, and what might be the consequences? Such a scenario may seem too absurd to contemplate. Russia depends heavily on energy exports to Europe and likes to be known as a reliable supplier. Even in the gas crises of 2006 and 2009, the Russians did not go so far. Why would Moscow do something that, on the face of things, would harm its own interests more than it would advance them? Read more

By Gideon Rachman

The fate of Angela Merkel’s “open door” policy on refugees has assumed global significance. Nationalists from Russia to the US are pointing at the German chancellor’s policies as a symbol of the failure of an out-of-touch liberal elite. In the most recent US presidential debate, Donald Trump denounced Ms Merkel, adding: “Germany is a disaster right now.” Even within the EU, many leaders, particularly in the east, echo that sentiment.

Russia’s foreign policy resurgence
Russian air power has changed the course of the civil war in Syria and its annexation of Crimea remains largely unchallenged. Gideon Rachman talks to Neil Buckley, FT East Europe editor, and Sam Jones, defence and security editor, about Russia’s renewed confidence on the global stage and whether this is justified.

By Gideon Rachman

Why is the Middle East in flames and Russia on the rampage? In both Europe and the Middle East, it is common to hear the blame placed on Barack Obama. The US president, it is charged, is a weak and disengaged leader who has allowed international events to get out of control.

What happens if Aleppo falls?
Syrian government forces backed by Russian air power are on the brink of encircling the northern city of Aleppo, a stronghold of the moderate rebels in what could prove to be a decisive moment in Syria’s murderous civil war. Ben Hall discusses the implications with Erika Solomon, FT Middle East correspondent, and Geoff Dyer, FT US diplomatic correspondent.

Vladimir Putin at a regional security summit in Tajikistan in September

It emerged this month that Tajikistan’s authorities had forcibly shaved the beards of almost 13,000 men last year as part of their grim struggle to stamp out militant Islam. But the big problem for Tajikistan and the rest of Central Asia in 2016 will not be beards. If the predictions of various western and Russian specialists are accurate, it will be the contribution of Russia’s economic troubles to religious radicalisation in the region. Read more

Protesters pour into the Moldovan parliament

Take a moment to consider the events that unfolded on Wednesday inside the parliament building in Chisinau, capital of Moldova, a small, deprived, appallingly governed nation of 3.5m people.

All eyes were on Pavel Filip, a former sweets factory manager who was about to be appointed as Moldova’s sixth prime minister in less than a year. “We’re forming a last-chance government for Moldova,” he told legislators, in remarks that carried only a touch of exaggeration.

What happened next? First, Mr Filip won the parliamentary vote. Then a gang of protesters forced their way into the chamber and started a brawl. One political party leader had blood dripping down his face.

Meanwhile, outside parliament, several thousand demonstrators were chanting anti-establishment slogans on the street. They were still there on Thursday. Read more

By Gideon Rachman
In 2015, a sense of unease and foreboding seemed to settle on all the world’s major power centres. From Beijing to Washington, Berlin to Brasília, Moscow to Tokyo — governments, media and citizens were jumpy and embattled.

By Gideon Rachman
I have a nightmare vision for the year 2017: President Trump, President Le Pen, President Putin.
Like most nightmares, this one probably won’t come true. But the very fact that Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen are running strongly for the American and French presidencies says something disturbing about the health of liberal democracy in the west. In confusing and scary times, voters seem tempted to turn to “strong” nationalistic leaders — western versions of Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Can world powers make common cause against Isis?
France has been courting US and Russian support for a war on Isis in the wake of the Paris terror attacks. But while Russia and Turkey, a Nato member, claim to be fighting the same foe, they themselves saw armed combat this week when Turkey shot down a Russian jet on its border with Syria. Mark Vandevelde asks Gideon Rachman and Geoff Dyer whether world powers are capable of making common cause against Isis.

A protest in front of the parliament building in Moldova's capital, Chisinau

After President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, some feverish western politicians and commentators started to detect the Kremlin’s malign hand manipulating every event large and small across Russia’s former Soviet neighbourhood.

They drew particular attention to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, whose political classes contain vocal, westernised lobbies that rarely waste a chance to point their US and European interlocutors in an anti-Russian direction.

Yet the reality is not so black and white. Since the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991, it never has been. In important respects, the political, economic and social ills that afflict these states are home-grown. You can blame the Russians for a lot, but not for everything. Read more

If Vladimir Putin is looking for a way out of his estrangement from the west over the Ukraine crisis, he sometimes has an odd way of showing it.

Two days after Russia’s president met his US counterpart Barack Obama at the UN Security Council last month and called for an international coalition to fight Islamist terrorism, Russia gave the US just one hour’s notice that it would launch air strikes in Syria. It delivered the message via a Russian general who turned up on the doorstep of the US embassy in Baghdad.

Addressing the annual Valdai Club conference on Thursday, Mr Putin reiterated his appeal for co-operation in Syria – but only after running through a typical litany of complaints about US policy and behaviour.

Yet this was a different Mr Putin from the sour figure who, at the same meeting with foreign journalists and academics a year ago, delivered arguably his bitterest anti-US diatribe since his combative “Munich speech” of 2007.

By shifting the military theatre from Ukraine to Syria – however big a gamble Russia’s military intervention there may be – Mr Putin seemed to feel he had seized the initiative. His acid wit and self-assurance were back. Read more

Russia raises its profile in the Middle East
Russia has moved fighter jets, tanks and troops into a base in Syria, meanwhile Vladimir Putin, Russian president, is gearing up to make a major speech at the United Nations. What are the Russians up to? Gideon Rachman discusses this question with Neil Buckley and Geoff Dyer.