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Vladimir Putin goes aggresive on energy strategy

Vladimir Putin has certainly rattled western politicians with his actions over the last 15 years and kept his popularity high at home in the process

There are two schools of thought on his strategy: is he demonstrating the skills of a chess grandmaster, where every move is in clear view and subject to discussion; or – as a former exponent of chess, Garry Kasparov, argues – is he closer in spirit to a poker player? 

In the former role, Putin has not always been convincing. In Ukraine, for example, Russian troops have been identified as fighting alongside the Ukrainian rebels and the Minsk accords have been useless. On the other hand, the expansion of Nato eastwards to include nearly all the former Soviet bloc states in Europe helps to explain Putin’s opposition to the west-leaning governments in Kiev. However, Kiev has managed, through all the problems over gas bills in particular, to portray itself as the innocent victim of Russia’s aggression when it has itself been unable to collect the money due from its own gas consumers.

Putin’s latest actions in Syria have caught the West on the hop once more. Having seen the bloodshed and the waves of refugees that follow when strong men in the region are toppled, Putin’s military support for the president, Bashar al-Assad has a logic to it, unpalatable though it may be. And with a large Muslim population of its own, Russia also has an interest in preventing a wave of foreign-trained fighters returning home. Seen in that context, Russia is no less entitled to take part in the revolution than other countries. But it is hard to see his rule at home as successful, presiding, as he has, over an economy that had weak points long before the sanctions over the annexation of Crimea began. True, the country’s wealth has grown enormously since his presidency, but much of that is due to raw materials, and it cannot control the price of those. 

His identification with the gas industry – in particular his appointment of Alexei Miller as the chief executive, and his own subsequent interventions in gas contracts and pipeline plans, such as Turkey Stream and export plans aimed at China – have partly turned Gazprom back into the ministry of gas, even while other parts of it freely wheel and deal in LNG and pipeline gas. In the oil sector his involvement runs even deeper.

Considering the extent of the flight of intellectual and financial capital, and the failure of the economy to develop exportable consumer goods, despite the potential of the available workforce, his presidency so far has not demonstrated that much forward thinking. Still, unlike his rivals on the world stage, he may have another decade to hone that skill. 

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