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Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony inaugurating the TurkStream pipeline on Jan. 8, 2020.

Alexei Druzhinin/The Associated Press

Nina Khrushcheva is a professor of International Affairs at The New School in New York. She is the co-author of In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones.

Over the past year, predictions of serious struggles for Russian President Vladimir Putin – or even his political demise – have been increasingly frequent. A recent article in The Economist, “An Awful Week For Vladimir Putin,” is just one example. But it is Putin biographer and New York Times correspondent Steven Lee Myers whose assessment rings most true: “Putin,” Mr. Myers has repeatedly said to me, “always wins.”

Maybe “always” isn’t quite true. Russia’s economy is expected to grow by only 1 per cent this year, owing to lagging export diversification, large-scale capital flight and low levels of foreign direct investment linked to Western sanctions imposed after the country’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

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But 61 per cent of Russians still rate Mr. Putin’s performance positively. Most democratic leaders can only dream of such favour with the public. Fewer than 43 per cent of Americans approve of U.S. President Donald Trump, for example. In fact, the same incoherent and combative U.S. policies toward Europe, China, Turkey and others that have contributed to Mr. Trump’s unpopularity have fuelled Mr. Putin’s popularity by handing him a series of tactical victories.

For example, a lack of effective U.S. engagement in Syria has pushed Turkey into Russia’s arms. In particular, in October 2015, the United States withdrew its Patriot missiles from southeastern Turkey, which had been deployed after the country appealed to its NATO allies to guard against missile threats from neighbouring Syria. In 2017, the U.S. offered to sell Patriot missiles to Turkey but without the underlying technology.

So Turkey reached a multibillion-dollar arms deal with Russia instead, despite the outrage of its NATO partners. But Turkey knows that it is Russia, not the U.S., that is shaping the Syria conflict and will play a leading role in the country’s potentially lucrative reconstruction effort, making it a much more desirable partner there. Strengthening the bilateral relationship further, Mr. Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are about to inaugurate the TurkStream gas pipeline connecting their two countries.

Russia has also launched a massive new gas-pipeline project with China, worth US$400-billion over 30 years, and is negotiating another. Here, too, the Trump administration’s actions – in particular, its bitter trade war against China, which may well continue, despite the two countries’ recent “phase one” agreement – created a lucrative opening that Mr. Putin was quick to seize.

The pipeline project, according to Mr. Putin, takes bilateral “strategic co-operation in energy to a qualitative new level” and supports progress toward the goal, set with Chinese President Xi Jinping, “of taking bilateral trade to US$200-billion by 2024” – the year Mr. Putin’s “final” presidential term ends. Perhaps he hopes that the fruits of such engagement will strengthen his position enough to enable him to remain in power, whether as president or in another position.

Although fears of being under Mr. Putin’s thumb fuelled the protests that ousted Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, in 2014 – leading directly to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Russia-backed separatists’ takeover of eastern Ukraine – the fear of confronting Russia alone is even greater.

This doesn’t mean Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is going to roll over for Russia. He agreed with the Kremlin on an exchange of 200 prisoners in the continuing war in eastern Ukraine – the second prisoner exchange this year. The recent pipeline deal can also be considered a win for Ukraine; Gazprom had previously insisted on a one-year deal, because it already has the Nord Stream-1 pipeline, which crosses the Baltic Sea to Germany, and will soon complete Nord Stream-2.

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But Russian negotiators eased their position, perhaps partly in the hope of easing resistance to the Nord Stream project. That resistance includes sanctions, included in the 2020 U.S. defence budget, on companies working on Nord Stream-2, which the U.S. argues would give Russia too much leverage over America’s European allies, as well as those working on TurkStream.

Russian officials have said that Gazprom has already lined up other companies prepared to take over. There is “nothing to worry about,” claims Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, especially given the gas-transit arrangement with Ukraine. As in the Middle East and China, Mr. Putin knows that a moment when Europe’s relationship with the U.S. is severely strained is the ideal time to strengthen its position vis-à-vis its neighbour.

Mr. Putin may not have a winning long-term strategy to save Russia’s economy, but his pipeline politics have led to a series of impressive foreign-policy victories. This approach may give him enough prestige to continue his long winning streak.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.

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