The Week In Russia: Hunger Games: Putin’s Big Appetite For A Seat At The Table

Vladimir Putin is sometimes portrayed as ravenous: a hungry wolf on the ragged edge of Europe, about to descend diagonally down the map and devour what’s in his path.

But throughout his years in power, and particularly over the last few, some of Russia’s actions abroad suggest that despite a prodigious appetite, he’s a picky eater. Or at least a wary one, usually trying not to bite off more than he can chew — though not always succeeding.

He can also be something of a scavenger, nosing around for what he might call a tasty morsel — words he used when he basically blamed the West for the Beslan school attack in 2004 — and jumping when he sees an opening but backing off, if only to circle and wait for another chance when he senses that the price may be too high.

Parts of that approach can be seen in Syria, where Russia backed President Bashar al-Assad from the beginning of his war against rebels in 2011 and then stepped up its support in 2015, launching air strikes and deploying ground forces in a move that may have saved Assad from defeat and bolstered Moscow’s clout in the Middle East.

In Ukraine, Putin sent in troops, staged a referendum, and snaffled up Crimea when opportunity and motive aligned after the downfall of a Moscow-friendly president in Kyiv.

But after fomenting separatism and backing forces that seized control of parts of two provinces on the other side of its border, Moscow and the militants stopped short of seeking to push westward and establish control over or take a huge swath of Ukrainian territory that Putin briefly referred to as Novorossia, or New Russia.

Vladimir Putin is sometimes portrayed as ravenous: a hungry wolf on the ragged edge of Europe, about to descend diagonally down the map and devour what’s in his path.

But throughout his years in power, and particularly over the last few, some of Russia’s actions abroad suggest that despite a prodigious appetite, he’s a picky eater. Or at least a wary one, usually trying not to bite off more than he can chew — though not always succeeding.

He can also be something of a scavenger, nosing around for what he might call a tasty morsel — words he used when he basically blamed the West for the Beslan school attack in 2004 — and jumping when he sees an opening but backing off, if only to circle and wait for another chance when he senses that the price may be too high.

Parts of that approach can be seen in Syria, where Russia backed President Bashar al-Assad from the beginning of his war against rebels in 2011 and then stepped up its support in 2015, launching air strikes and deploying ground forces in a move that may have saved Assad from defeat and bolstered Moscow’s clout in the Middle East.

In Ukraine, Putin sent in troops, staged a referendum, and snaffled up Crimea when opportunity and motive aligned after the downfall of a Moscow-friendly president in Kyiv.

But after fomenting separatism and backing forces that seized control of parts of two provinces on the other side of its border, Moscow and the militants stopped short of seeking to push westward and establish control over or take a huge swath of Ukrainian territory that Putin briefly referred to as Novorossia, or New Russia.

The results are mixed.

In Venezuela, Maduro has held on so far. Not so in Sudan, where autocratic leader Omar al-Bashir was overthrown by the military on April 11 and the future remained uncertain as demonstrators — at first jubilant — called for the establishment of a civilian government.

In power in Sudan since before the Soviet Union collapsed, Bashir voiced high praise for the role that [Russia] plays in preparing Sudanese military personnel and thanked Putin for the experience Russia shares with our country in the areas of arms trade and military cooperation when they met in Russia in July for the second time in eight months.

Adaptable You

Russia made it clear that it will seek to retain its influence in Sudan — where members of Russian private security companies are working, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in January — as part of what observers say is a continuing effort by Moscow to stamp a larger footprint in Africa.

As events unfolded in Sudan and broadcasts showed a nightmare scenario for Putin — tens of thousands of protesters in the streets of the capital — his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the Kremlin was monitoring this situation very carefully” and hoping that whatever the outcome, Russian-Sudanese relations” will be a priority for Khartoum.

We’ll see.

In Libya, meanwhile, Russia has been seeking to gain or regain influence and economic opportunities eight years after the ouster and death of Muammar Qaddafi, which followed NATO-nation air strikes made possible by a UN resolution that Putin — with Russia’s decision to abstain, credited to Dmitry Medvedev, the tandem partner he had steered into the presidency as a placeholder — likened to medieval calls for crusades.

Hedging Bets

Russia’s practical interest in Libya may be accompanied by hunger for revenge of sorts. Whatever the motives, Moscow has given substantial support to Khalifa Haftar, an eastern-based commander whose forces control much of the massive country and this month launched a campaign to seize the capital, Tripoli, where the UN-backed government is based.

The results are mixed.

In Venezuela, Maduro has held on so far. Not so in Sudan, where autocratic leader Omar al-Bashir was overthrown by the military on April 11 and the future remained uncertain as demonstrators — at first jubilant — called for the establishment of a civilian government.

In power in Sudan since before the Soviet Union collapsed, Bashir voiced high praise for the role that [Russia] plays in preparing Sudanese military personnel and thanked Putin for the experience Russia shares with our country in the areas of arms trade and military cooperation when they met in Russia in July for the second time in eight months.

Adaptable You

Russia made it clear that it will seek to retain its influence in Sudan — where members of Russian private security companies are working, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in January — as part of what observers say is a continuing effort by Moscow to stamp a larger footprint in Africa.

As events unfolded in Sudan and broadcasts showed a nightmare scenario for Putin — tens of thousands of protesters in the streets of the capital — his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the Kremlin was monitoring this situation very carefully” and hoping that whatever the outcome, Russian-Sudanese relations” will be a priority for Khartoum.

We’ll see.

In Libya, meanwhile, Russia has been seeking to gain or regain influence and economic opportunities eight years after the ouster and death of Muammar Qaddafi, which followed NATO-nation air strikes made possible by a UN resolution that Putin — with Russia’s decision to abstain, credited to Dmitry Medvedev, the tandem partner he had steered into the presidency as a placeholder — likened to medieval calls for crusades.

Hedging Bets

Russia’s practical interest in Libya may be accompanied by hunger for revenge of sorts. Whatever the motives, Moscow has given substantial support to Khalifa Haftar, an eastern-based commander whose forces control much of the massive country and this month launched a campaign to seize the capital, Tripoli, where the UN-backed government is based.

Or as analyst Alex Nice put it wryly in a tweet after the court ruling the form of custody for Calvey: Invest in Russia — you’ll only get house arrest.

Like Serebrennikov, Calvey is still charged, and he and his colleagues at private-equity firm Baring Vostok face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of large-scale financial fraud — a charge they deny.

Four of them remain behind bars. Frenchman Philippe Delpal had the term of his pretrial detention — jail, that is — extended to July 14, Bastille Day in his home country, by a court earlier in the week.

In a separate case, Calvey’s countryman, Paul Whelan, is also still confined to Moscow’s Lefortovo prison — more than three months after he was arrested and accused of espionage. Russian authorities claim he was caught red-handed, but U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman told RFE/RL that they have provided no evidence so far — urging them to quit playing these games and release him.

And for some the release of Serebrennikov is a reminder of the plight of another director, Ukrainian Oleh Sentsov. He is serving a 20-year prison sentence in Russia after being convicted of terrorism, a charge he and supporters say was trumped up as punishment for his opposition to Moscow’s takeover of Crimea.

Sentsov survived a 145-day hunger strike last year.

Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036