Answer me a question before we proceed any further. How many Russian spies are there in Great Britain? Five, fifty or five hundred?
Russia expert Dr. Andrew Foxall put the same question to dissidents who had fled Vladimir Putin's regime and taken refuge in London three years ago. They told him of a widespread and brazen espionage operation that saw and heard everything in British government. The network didn't merely collect information, but also spread disinformation and meddled in British elections—often achieving outcomes favourable to Russia's interests.
Foxall, who has since been hired by the U.K. defence ministry, heard from the defectors that half of all Russian expats in London were some kind of an asset for Moscow's intelligence agencies. The answer, then, was: a whopping 75,000!
Foxall couldn't believe that number. But he did mention it in his final report, because one never dismisses out of hand anything spoken about Russia just because it is unbelievable.
The number created a flutter in foreign-policy circles and was eventually dismissed as an exaggeration. But exactly how exaggerated was it? Some Whitehall officials said it overstated the true number by a factor of two, some said three. The real cynics claimed five. So, even by the most conservative estimate, at least 15,000 of Uncle Vlad's boys and girls were playing peeping tom in Britain.
Why would Russia spy on the U.K. on such a massive scale? After all, Putin is routinely dismissive of Britain's role in the world. “A small island no-one pays attention to” is how a crony of his once described the country.
But then, Putin also knows which side of his darnitskiy is buttered. Britain may no longer be a superpower but it is still the crossroads for the world's traffic of people and information. London offers various advantages to wheeler-dealers from afar—a financial hub that can handle very large amounts of money, a legal infrastructure relied upon to settle international disputes and a neutral ground where foreigners, however exotic, can blend in unnoticeably. That's the reason everyone from dictators to dissenters, arms dealers to activists, come to this city to plot their next move.
By positioning themselves in this central marketplace, Putin's spies can buy and sell intelligence across the strategic corridors of the entire West. And for the same reason, it's also my ideal perch to understand Putin's geopolitical ambitions, and his strategic manoeuvres.
The Man with the Golden Gun
But honestly, who cares about Russian spies in London? Not even Britons! My motive here was just to paint you a picture of this wily fox called Putin and his penchant for intrigue before we delve into the topic I want to discuss with you—namely, the brand new, multi-sided Great Game that's just about kicking off in geopolitics.
More on that in a moment, but have you noticed in the recent months how there's been a flurry of political events in which, inexplicably, Putin is the arbitrator and peacemaker? The world's biggest oil exporters under the umbrella of OPEC are consulting him on how much crude to produce; NATO member Turkey seeks his help to fight Kurdish separatists in Syria; India complains to him about Chinese border incursions; Germany pleads with him to solve Europe's energy shortage; Even the Taliban appeals for his support at the United Nations to get its government in Afghanistan recognized.
None of these issues that Putin is supposed to solve have anything do with him or Russia. Yet, he thrusts himself into these affairs and makes them his own. If recent history is any indication, he will soon begin to influence their outcome, in line with Russia's own interests. Then he will leave, with his local beneficiary acting as his agent to secure those interests in the long term.
This routine has played out repeatedly for more than a decade, but in 2021, it is almost the norm. It's a veritable Godfather script, except that it unfolds in the fields of international power politics rather than street crime.
Truth is, Russia is now more influential on global affairs than at any time since the 1970s, the height of Leonid Brezhnev's neo-Stalinist Soviet power. That's a stunning result for a country which is at best a marginal economy with a perennially cash-strapped government and an underfunded military. Its industry is underdeveloped outside of oil and gas. Its gross domestic product—smaller than that of Guangdong or New York state—is struggling to grow. Russians are getting poorer, not richer.
Putin, himself, comes across as an anachronism. In a changing world driven by economic and trade cooperation, his insistence on spying and arms-mongering is out of place. His strategic playbook borrows from the Cold War, driven by the same insecurities and paranoia about the West that defined Soviet Union's stalemate with America.
Yet, it is this spy-turned-strongman of a deflated nation who is emerging as the dealmaker of choice for these chaotic times. Where the U.S. and China pour billions to buy a little goodwill and influence, Russia walks in and takes a controlling interest at virtually no cost. Moscow punching far above its weight may well turn out to be the biggest geopolitical surprise of the 21st Century.
The World Is Not Enough
For three decades since the end of the Soviet Union, the international order was led by the U.S. The American way of life and economic model spread everywhere, including to many former communist allies that retooled themselves to embrace free markets. To sustain this model, and its position in the world, America fought expensive wars, pumped billions of dollars in aid into the Third World and sent its corporations to spread its brand of consumerism. The height of this U.S. hegemony was when McDonalds opened its outlet in Siberia!
Since then, the unipolar world has ended. Part of the reason is America's own withdrawal from global affairs. The wars have been wound up, expansive relationships are being whittled down and involvement in democracy projects reduced to lip service. While the U.S. is self-isolating, challengers have emerged. China, after four decades of rapid growth, now treats itself as a superpower. The world's second-largest economy has become politically aggressive too, as we saw in Hong Kong and may soon see in Taiwan. It's building its own zone of influence in Africa, Latin America and Asia, and is competing with the U.S. for the role of the Greatest Power on Earth.
But there's a twist in the tale.
While the world's two most powerful nations face off, a small number of moderately strong nations are pursuing their own agenda. Their aim is to ensure that it doesn't become a bipolar regime between the U.S. and China, making them side players, but a multipolar world where they have a seat at the table as equal decision makers. The European Union, a $15 trillion economy with some of the most advanced nations, is one such power. India, armed with the fastest economic growth on the planet, is another. Japan, tired of living under the U.S. security umbrella, is a third one.
But on the ground, these nations have done little to shape the new international order. Having passively watched the changes, they're now trying to catch up with a plan of their own. But with their ambitions limited by their local enmities, they are only aiming for the smaller prize of regional overlords. None of these powers has offered a sweeping global vision to become the Third Pole.
But there's one country that has not only offered that vision but has also spent 25 years working for it. It is neither reactive nor contented with a regional role. It wants for itself a complete world power status that it thinks it already owns.
Russia, of course.
You Only Live Twice
The successor state to the Soviet Union never accepted the end of the Cold War. To defeat U.S. hegemony and wrest back its strategic influence in global affairs has been the core of Russia's foreign policy even before Putin took charge of the country. His arrival at the Kremlin only gave that plan aggression and direction. And execution has been nearly flawless.
To the U.S. and the international community watching the growing clout of Russia with alarm, it all seems to be happening at lightning speed. They may be tempted to explain away this expansive phase of Putin's foreign policy as a lucky streak that's unlikely to last. But nothing could be farther from the truth.
Every single headline we read about Russia today has been in the making for 25 years. Be it the military support for Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad, the mercenary-led fighting in Ukraine or Sudan, or the sale of its sophisticated S400 missile-defence systems to India and Turkey, each action taken by Putin's regime is part of a larger plan that has been fine-tuned a million times under an overarching foreign-policy doctrine. Putin doesn't move a pin without strategic intent. He doesn't start anything without deciding an end game. It's the Western leaders' failure to grasp this key characteristic of his personality that allows him to add an aura of unpredictability to his actions.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia spent a few years in strategic confusion, not knowing its role in the world. The aftershocks of territorial splintering and the painful process of rebuilding had turned the country inward-looking. This period of withdrawal, which lasted about five years, lulled the West into a belief that Russia will never return as a global power.
Then, in 1996, a man called Yevgeny Primakov reappeared on the scene. An old Mikhail Gorbachev hand with extensive diplomatic and intelligence experience, he was appointed foreign minister by Boris Yeltsin. Almost at once, Primakov started plotting the end of the unipolar world and the return of Russia to its old Soviet glory. His quick stock-taking revealed both strengths and weaknesses. The country had the world's largest nuclear arsenal, superiority in land warfare and top-notch military technology. But it lacked the most important weapon of a global power: money.
So, Primakov wrote a foreign-policy doctrine that played to Russia's strengths. He proposed that the nation won't seek to be a superpower, but a global power. Without spending too much money, without trying to dominate everyone, it would seek to have just enough power to shift the course of external events to its own advantage.
Primakov's doctrine had three pillars. The first was to offer a low-cost mediation in strategic theatres, starting in the former Soviet bloc, later expanding to the Middle East and Africa. Two, Russia would seek to weaken the West, its main adversary, and divide NATO. Third, it would build up mid-range powers, namely China and India, as counterweights to the West.
Russia's first throw of the dice under the new plan came in 2008 when it invaded Georgia, punishing it for trying to join the EU and NATO. This was Europe's first conventional war in the 21st Century and was won in five days flat. Georgia lay splintered. But that was not all. Russia's real objective was to test the Primakov Doctrine and see if the EU or NATO would dare to stop Russia in its military resurgence.
They didn't. The West balked at the thought of fighting Russia and offered no more than verbal condemnation against the occupation. If Europe and America had not been so timid and taught Russia an expensive lesson in Georgia, the Primakov Doctrine would have died in the Caucasus. But as it turned out, it not only stood validated, but started the years-long process of the West's surrender to Russia.
The next move came in 2014, under Putin as president, repeating the Georgian script almost verbatim. Ukraine was also a nation at Russia's doorstep, seeking to join the European Union and NATO. Putin couldn't allow his enemies to get so close. He invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. In this second test of nerves, Europe and the U.S. faltered again. They stood by and watched the nation being plundered for wanting to join them. And just like in Georgia, Putin set up a permanent war in Ukraine, indefinitely preventing its accession to the EU.
To this day, Europe stands disgraced on its eastern flank as a power that let down its friends who were butchered for being its friends. NATO is considered a joke. Russia is the only power that anyone is really afraid of.
Licence to Kill
Then came Syria, in 2015. Unlike in Georgia or Ukraine, Russia was now entering a territory where the U.S. was already present in the conflict. Even before entering the war, Putin had won a diplomatic bout with President Barack Obama, by fending off his attempts to punish Assad for using chemical weapons.
But as the U.S. campaign in Syria progressed and looked dangerously close to dislodging Assad, Russia decided to intervene militarily. It began fighting alongside government troops, risking a direct conflict with U.S. forces. Putin's gamble paid off. Obama dodged Russia, weakening U.S. support to the rebels. Instead, he turned his troops to fight Islamic State terrorists, who were the common enemy of both powers. Later, under Donald Trump, the U.S. simply vacated Syria. Lesson learned: the U.S. had lost its 20th Century will to eyeball Russia in the 21st Century.
At this point, it is fair to acknowledge that Putin's foreign policy couldn't have become so successful without the West's active cooperation. The U.S., U.K., and Europe are riven by a million internal conflicts, with a number of culture wars and street protests deepening polarization in the society. Putin exploits these fault lines. His operatives spread disinformation to stoke more disquiet, carry out sabotage on computer networks and run influence operations to promote Russia's cause.
For instance, the African American communities were targeted with lies about U.S. police brutality, fanning the racism debate and weakening the social fabric. The U.K.'s Brexit referendum may have been infiltrated. In Europe, Russia's crony state Belarus has been bringing refugees from the Middle East and allowing them to enter the EU via its border. Because of the EU's freedom of movement, the refugees are then able to disperse to many nations, bringing their already stretched public services to their knees. That's ratcheted up intra-EU tensions, and set the U.K. and France on the biggest collision course since the Napoleonic Wars. Their bickering leaders now have little chance of standing united against Russia.
The Syrian campaign gave Putin the opening to the Middle East and Africa. In the Gulf, his first objective was to control the oil economy, a status for which the U.S. had spent three decades fighting costly wars but failed. Putin took a low-cost approach. He just joined hands with the oil cartel OPEC, playing on their fears of American dominance of the oil sector, given the heavy investments being made in North American shale deposits.
Four years later, Russia dominates proceedings at OPEC+, the expanded group, along with its previous adversary Saudi Arabia. Putin has now become a friend to both sides of the Middle-Eastern chasm, the Sunnis and Shias. He fights on the side of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, while canoodling with the Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman on oil matters. Everybody goes home thinking Russia is their friend.
The speed with which Russia is opening up its next frontier, Africa, can only be described as lightning. In Sudan, Russia won a major victory for its military diplomacy in 2020 when the country's then ruler Omar al-Bashir agreed to let Putin set up a naval base on the Red Sea shore. When al-Bashir was overthrown in a coup by the military, which expressed doubts about the naval base, Russia quickly switched loyalties to the new regime. Now the plan is back in action! Combined with Russia's Cold War-era base in Syria, the Port Sudan base will make the country's a formidable naval power in the most unsettled part of the world.
Wherever a power vacuum arises in Africa, Russia seems to be in a hurry to fill it. In Mali, for instance, former colonial power France withdrew its troops after failing to bring order to a country where a coup-a-year is the norm. Russian forces took charge soon after. Libya, Central African Republic, Madagascar, Mozambique—the list of countries where Russia is the arbiter of internecine conflicts is growing rapidly. European powers and America, which had once tried and failed to settle these conflicts, can only watch helplessly as Russia pockets warlord after warlord in its big bag of influence.
And it's a low-cost operation. It's not the Russian Treasury that pays for his African campaign, but the impoverished African governments themselves. You read it right. Example: Mali, whose per capita income is about $2,200, pays $132 million per year for 1,000 Russian fighters to be stationed as “advisors” to the government led by Colonel Assimi Goita.
At this point, I want to introduce to you a lovely bunch of young men called the Wagner Group. It's a private security-services company. Sounds alright, until you peel the onion. It's a company that rents out mercenary soldiers to kill for a fee. Funny thing: the company is entirely made up of Russians, the mercenaries travel in Russian military planes, get treated in Russian hospitals. They even get medals and awards from Kremlin. But straight-faced Putin has assured everyone that Russia has absolutely nothing to do with Wagner, which is a private company. Except, by sheer coincidence, it happens to serve Russia's geopolitical interests.
It's this Wagner Group that has sent troops to Mali and other African nations. And that's why the local governments have to pay for engaging their services. So even if things go against Russia from here, the worst that can happen is a loss of revenue for Wagner, but virtually no impact on Moscow proper.
The Living Daylights
Overshadowing America in faraway banana republics is one thing, but beating it in its own backyard is quite another. That's the ultimate prize the Primakov Doctrine was written to achieve. And that's what Putin is doing with Turkey. The former democratic republic increasingly turning into an Islamic theocracy is the weak link in NATO. Its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, lives in paranoia after a July 2016 coup narrowly missed removing him from power. His relationship with U.S. presidents has steadily deteriorated over a number of petty squabbles, including America's sheltering of his detractors.
Putin, the guarantor par excellence of autocratic regimes, has offered support and Erdogan has gratefully accepted. Despite a range of disputes including their support to opposite factions in Syria, the two countries are boosting cooperation. Turkey is now buying the S400 systems from Russia, thus earning the dubious distinction of a NATO member with Russian weapons. U.S. bases in the country are clearly under threat, but President Joe Biden has made little effort to win back Turkey, and hasn't even agreed to Erdogan's requests to meet. Bad loser!
Completing the three-pronged Primakov Doctrine is Putin's charm offensive in China and India. Russia's main aim is to get both these economic giants onside and prevent them from ever becoming U.S. allies. You'll never see the Wagner Group or dirty air raids here, but plenty of arms deals, joint exercises and cultural ties.
Russia and China have vexatious issues going back centuries and came close to a nuclear war in the 1960s over a border dispute. That history, combined with China's economic superiority, leaves President Xi Jinping with little need to be nice to Putin. Russia needs to make China dependent on it, and do it quickly. That's the reason Putin is selling weapons to Xi's military, supports him on Taiwan, and has conducted joint exercises near the territories of South Korea and Japan.
Russia is a proud nation that will never agree to play second fiddle to anyone. That means the relationship with China will turn testy at times, if the latter fails to treat it as an equal. But Putin already has an insurance. Central Asia. The former Soviet Republics there are nostalgic for the old days, after the dreams woven by the U.S. about their economic growth all came to naught. Despite China's money that's building the Belt-and-Road project through their territory, they actually prefer Russia to lead them. If China ever disrespects Russia, Putin can activate an entire region against it.
The Spy Who Loved Me
That leaves us with India. If there's one country for which Putin's cold heart may have some genuine affection for, it may be this long-standing Soviet ally. And Washington is making Putin's job even easier. By hyphenating India and Pakistan as equal entities in South Asia, and not recognizing India's concerns about cross-border terrorism, the U.S. is already losing India. Its cynical partnership with Islamabad in the War on Terror taught India never to be too reliant on it. To rub salt on wound, the Biden regime is taken in by lobby groups dominating the Democratic Party and is cold-shouldering India. That breach is now being filled by Russia, as the only major power that is sensitive to India's strategic concerns.
The irony in this relationship is India is actually the stronger country, but Russia seems to be the dominant partner. India has a bigger economy that is growing six times as fast as Russia's. Its capital markets are infinitely more robust than its partner's. The nation beats Russia in many domains: services, software technology, generic drugs, management expertise. The list is endless.
It's for this reason I was disappointed to see the Indian media portraying Putin as India's benefactor. Stories about how he was sending a warning to China over its border incursions in the Himalayas were, I hope, merely a plant by the ministry of propaganda and not the conviction of India's rulers. If it was, bad news. It's going to end in disappointment. Putin will never risk his relations with China to appease India. In Primakov's third principle, both nations are equal partners that must be won over and it can never be one against the other. In fact, Putin may well seek to be the arbitrator between India and China, and thus gain more power over both.
Putin's real value to India is not what he can give, but what he can teach. Two decades ago, Russia was a forgotten, economically failed nation. He made it a global power with a veto on every important issue. And he did it on a shoestring budget. The secret to his success is the sheer confidence he projects. He knows what's good for Russia and doesn't hesitate to take risks to achieve it. India, with far more economic success and goodwill, should be able to do better—and even emerge as a global power in its own right—if it can project the same confidence.
Vladimir Putin. History may remember him as a dictator and a bloodhound who ran a global protection racket. But Russians will always remember him as the man who led their enfeebled nation in its darkest hour and took it back to its old glory.
Thanks to him, Russia owns the multipolar world.
About this series
A Letter from London is a new monthly newsletter, anchored by a leading strategic analyst and commentator of Indian origin, based in the heart of The City. It looks at what’s shifting at the intersection of business, markets, economy and society.