Vladimir Putin and the year of the strongman leader

Just a few years ago they were something of an endangered species, under siege by their own people, but the strongman leader is enjoying something of a resurgence in the Middle East and elsewhere, perhaps because of Vladimir Putin's example.

Once an endangered species, the ex-military, strongman leader is enjoying something of a resurgence

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the ceremony marking Victory Day, to celebrate the collapse of Nazi Germany, earlier this month in the Crimean city of Sevastopol. Given recent events, perhaps he was thinking of a different kind of victory? (Reuters)

You can call it the Year of the Strongman.

For a decade or so they've been an embattled class, universally out of fashion and under siege: sometimes toppled by their own people, sometimes by powers abroad.

But now — the times seem suddenly in their favour.

Take Russia's Vladimir Putin, who began 2014 as Time magazine's person of the year and has been on a roll ever since.

By early June, two more strongmen — predictably in the Middle East — will be added to the books.

Fresh from a still partial but significant victory in Syria's ongoing civil war, President Bashar al-Assad and the people around him are clearly projecting a new confidence.

Barring anything unexpected, he is certain to win the upcoming election on June 3, reconfirming his status as a regional strongman after years of doubt — and despite the widespread destruction, and the death and displacement of millions of Syrian civilians.

Meanwhile in Egypt, the severe crackdown that followed the ouster of its flailing Muslim Brotherhood rulers has made way for a new military-backed strongman.

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi only shed his uniform and his title as defence minister in late March, compelled, he said, by the call of his nation. Since then, he's been photographed riding a bicycle in civilian clothing, and his face is plastered on posters everywhere.

El-Sisi is now poised to become the latest in a string of military men who have toughly ruled the Mideast's weathervane and most populous country.

Egypt's former army chief and now presidential candidate Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters)

One key difference between him and the ousted Hosni Mubarak is that el-Sisi promises to leave the moment Egyptians no longer want him. That remains to be seen, given Egypt has introduced a new law that effectively bans protest.

Meanwhile, Assad has been able to consolidate his power largely because he agreed, with Russian mediation, to give up the country's vast chemical weapons cache.

So these are strongmen who come with new limits.

And while there are a number of different local and regional factors behind their re-emergence, a good part of it seems the result of the unmistakable tone set by Russia's Putin.

Putin's banner year

By his own standards anyway, Putin is having a banner year that even surpasses the 2013 performance that earned him the Time magazine title.

Not only did he mount a successful Olympics, but he annexed new territory — Crimea — which is not only strategically significant (long the home of Russia's Black Sea fleet), but is also key to untold offshore oil and gas reserves, now his alone to exploit.

All that, for the relatively affordable price of modest Western sanctions — and the equally modest encroachment of NATO forces in neighbouring countries.

Cap that off with Wednesday's huge, 30-year gas deal with China, ensuring Russia's energy superpower status and flexibility in the event of a European gas boycott.

Putin's other big accomplishment this year (which annexing Crimea made possible) was his consolidation of power at home through a series of subtle, restrictive measures that much of the world all but ignored.

Putin may also have new limitations on his strongman act. For one, he has probably reached the limit of Russia's physical presence in Ukraine, and knows full well that any further encroachment would trigger a much more vigorous Western response.

But his crowning achievement so far is that he has managed to guarantee himself a real hand in Kyiv's affairs, while keeping his man Assad in power in the Middle East.

Quid pro quo

Putin does not like revolutions. He's said repeatedly that they are chaotic, messy and counterproductive.

In the Middle East, the Arab Spring revolutions did not favour Russian influence.

Putin was apparently furious when Western nations helped Libya's revolutionaries dislodge his ally Moammar Gadhafi.

Putin wasn't about to allow the same thing to happen in Syria. Or Ukraine — a country on his very doorstep.

It is Putin's effort to protect Russia's influence that drove its consistent use of veto power at the UN on any resolution denouncing Syria. It's why he helped broker a deal with the U.S. to rid Syria of chemical weapons — to avert a Western military strike.

It was a deal that essentially preserved the Syrian status quo.

It's why, having lost his own man in Kyiv, Putin did everything short of invading Eastern Ukraine.

Putin did just enough to embolden pro-Russia loyalists there to cause the kind of trouble that would force a "dialogue" with Ukraine's new leaders — and guarantee Putin the influence he expects in a city, Kyiv, that he and many Russians still see as "the Mother of All Russian cities," in other words as part of Russia's founding myth.

It is clear now that Putin feels he will likely get his way.

Renewed friendships? Russia's Vladimir Putin, China's President Xi Jinping and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani attend the opening ceremony of a conference on Asia in Shanghai on Wednesday. (Reuters)

Otherwise, he would not have publicly supported Ukraine's presidential election and announced again on Wednesday, a troop pullback from the border by June 1.

It is equally clear, that U.S. and Western powers, despite all the bluster, are not only fine with Putin getting his way, but are getting their way too. Otherwise, elections would not be going ahead in Syria unchallenged.

It all smells like some kind of deal, or, at the very least, an unpalatable but (in the players' view) unavoidable quid pro quo.

It is likely no accident that Putin first announced his softened stance on Ukraine, on the very same day that Syrian rebels withdrew, en masse, from Homs, the cradle of the Syrian revolution.

It is also likely no accident that on the same day the U.S. vice-president arrived in Kyiv, to announce millions in support of Ukraine's elections, Syria announced it would hold presidential elections, despite its ongoing war.

Civilians in both places form the backdrop. Their wishes or suffering — both in fact — are largely ignored.

The strongmen are back. They may have new limits, but for the moment they are also largely unchallenged.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.


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