Putin is not the gifted leader many seem to think he is

This article is more than 12 months old

Russian leader's geopolitical moves may backfire

Mr Vladimir Putin's global stature appears to be at an all-time high.

Some observers call the Russian President the Middle East's new sheriff, and for good reason.

Less than two weeks ago, during meetings with the leaders of Syria, Turkey and Iran in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, Mr Putin took the central role in a diplomatic push to end Syria's civil war by winning support from Turkey and Iran to host a Syrian peace congress.

The Sochi summit conspicuously did not include delegates from the United States or the European Union.

And while its focus was on the Middle East, it is clear that Mr Putin has expanded his influence beyond the region.

In Europe, he destabilised Ukraine by annexing its Crimean peninsula and supporting separatists in the Donbass region after Ukrainians overthrew their pro-Moscow president in 2014.

In Asia, he has developed an increasingly close relationship with China.

In the US, charges of Russian interference in last year's election to help Mr Donald Trump have dominated Washington's political landscape and overshadowed the administration's legislative agenda.

Given that Russia's economy has a gross domestic product of US$1.28 trillion (S$1.73 trillion) - or barely 7 per cent the size of America's - Mr Putin arguably has played a weak hand brilliantly.

But Mr Putin's apparent successes may turn out to be failures. The view of the Russian leader as a master tactician overlooks how his achievements risk blowing up in his face.

Consider Ukraine: Russia has historically sought to dominate its southern neighbour and Mr Putin remains loath to allow the country to leave Moscow's orbit and join the West.

Since Ukraine's military had only 6,000 combat-ready troops, his dream of creating this "Novorossiya" - or New Russia - seemed within reach.

Unfortunately for him, Mr Putin's war on the country crystallised a sense of national identity. Private military battalions and civilian volunteers helped the army beat back Russian-supported separatists, and recent polls reveal a greater sense of Ukrainian identity than prior to 2014.

Support for joining Western institutions like the EU and Nato has also jumped while anti-Russian sentiments have hardened.

Also, his interference in America's electionhas not worked out as planned.

Mr Putin's secret April proposal to completely reset the Russian-US relationship and to cooperate on a series of global issues, largely went nowhere.

His establishing of closer ties with China also does not represent the threat some Americans fear. The Chinese economy dwarfs Russia's and this economic imbalance likely relegates Russia to the role of junior partner in any possible alliance.

Even worse for Mr Putin, Moscow's new willingness to sell Beijing its most advanced arms may actually undermine Russia's long-term geopolitical position.

Underlying mistrust between the two powers dating back decades still exists, and if one day a revanchist China seeks to reclaim its historic Siberian territory, Russia will regret Mr Putin's decision to pursue short-term economic benefit at the expense of its national security.

It is time to realise that claims of his geopolitical genius are more myth then reality. 

Josh Cohen is a former USAID project officer involved in managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union.