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MOSCOW, December 30. /TASS/. The outgoing year reaffirmed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s heavyweight status in world politics - however complex the relations between Russia and the West might be. To answer the question "Who is Mr. Putin?", which many were asking nearly seventeen years ago, one can just point to the top line of the Forbes list of the world’s most powerful personalities. The Russian leader has invariably been number one for several years running.
"From the motherland to Syria to the US presidential election Putin continues to get what he wants," says Forbes magazine. Also, Putin was in Time magazine’s and the AFP’s short lists of the Man of the Year rankings. For the first time ever he entered Bloomberg’s list of the world’s 50 most influential people on the market of world finance and his policies continue to enjoy wide support at home.
As far as the international situation is concerned, this year saw a continuation of what began in 2014 and 2015: the Ukrainian crisis, anti-Russian sanctions and the operation in Syria. Sadly, the outgoing year was not without some "black swan" events: for instance, the sudden flare-up of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in April, with high risks of a full-scale war between Russia’s allies and strategic partners in the Trans-Caucasus - Armenia and Azerbaijan. Putin then had to spend much of his time in telephone conversations with the conflicting parties and it was his mediation that helped return the situation back on the track of negotiations.
The other challenges, which Russia and its leader had to confront in the international scene, may look like a string of unrelated events only to a layman. The doping row, conclusions produced by the inquiry into the MH17 flight disaster, hysteria over hacker attacks allegedly engineered and masterminded by Russia and the situation in Aleppo. All these events have one ultimate underlying aim: Moscow is to be blamed for everything. But all this is nothing but backstage accompaniment to the anti-Russian sanctions and, in a sense, their extension.
In the meantime, Russia, while pushing ahead with an independent foreign policy, showed signs it might want self-isolation. Putin said this many a time, most recently at his customary year-end news conference. "The Russian economy, if it is to develop itself in earnest, must be part of the world one. And that’s the way it will be," he promised.
Putin is certain anyone who may try to isolate Russia from outside will fail.
"They’ll lack engine endurance and fuel even for taking a ride along our borders," Putin said at a recent forum, adding that isolation was just a tool of pressure on Russia.
That the task of isolating Russia is hardly accomplishable is recognized in the West by and large, although many there still indulge in wishful thinking. The United States, for instance, claims that Putin’s aborted visit to Paris last October was evidence of anti-Russian boycott.
In all fairness it should be remarked, though, that in contrast to just one foreign visit canceled at the very last moment (it was rather postponed, and not canceled altogether) there were nearly two dozen foreign trips the Russian leader made last year. Also, there were many more meetings with foreign leaders in Russia and on the sidelines of various international events. All in all, Putin in 2016 performed nineteen foreign visits, including nine to other countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the other, to far-away countries (four of them in Europe). In the previous year Putin made 15 foreign trips, approximately as many as in 2013 - before the sanctions were imposed.
Putin’s visit to Japan, a G7 country, stands out for a good reason. Plans for it had begun to be made long in advance, but the date was repeatedly postponed. That such a trip has eventually taken place puts "paid" to any speculations about Russia’s isolation. That Putin has been one of the most-wanted negotiating partners for other foreign leaders at major international events points in the same direction.
Some of Putin’s major international meetings took place in Russia. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to Moscow twice, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Sochi in May.
Yet the sanctions that were imposed on Russia in 2014 over the crisis in Ukraine were prolonged in 2016. The United States even expanded them. Also, Russia heard threats more sanctions might follow over Syria (although Moscow is the sole participant in the operation in that country that had agreed its actions with Damascus). The United States threatened it might take sanctions in retaliation for what it claimed was an attack by some Russian hackers during the presidential election campaign.
Putin believes that all allegations about some interference by Moscow in the US election were nothing but an attempt by the incumbent authorities to distract the public from real problems to keep eyes riveted to "Russian hackers, spies and agents of influence."
"Is there anybody in his right mind who may think in full seriousness that Russia is capable of influencing the choice of the American people somehow? What do they take the United States for, a banana republic? The United States is a great power," Putin said. "Will you please correct me, if I am wrong," he told the participants in the session of the international discussion club Valdai.
In the last days of the year the outgoing Obama administration tried to put another spoke in the wheel of bilateral relations to impose sanctions against some Russian individuals and entities, whom Washington stubbornly suspects of complicity in the hacker attacks. "Regrettably, such actions by the current administration are a manifestation of an unpredictable, I should say, aggressive foreign policy," Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the media.
Peskov said Russia’s response would be proportionate, but at the same time he made it quite clear that Moscow would take the trouble of discussing such matters with the Obama administration. "I don’t think that there should be any haste. I don’t think that the Russian president will be in a hurry," Peskov said.
As sanctions continue to be prolonged, Russia is firm in pursuing a policy of counter-sanctions, including the food import embargo on the West. In another telling gesture Moscow paused the operation of the Russian-US inter-governmental agreement of 2000 on the disposal of weapons-grade plutonium. Moscow stated outright that the suspension was in retaliation for "unfriendly actions by the United States towards Russia." It also mentioned the preconditions on which it might agree to resume compliance with the plutonium deal: Washington’s cancellation of the Magnitsky Act and all anti-Russian sanctions, compensation for the damage the sanctions caused and a reduction of the US military infrastructures in NATO countries.
Putin pointed not only to unfriendly policies by the United States, but also to Washington’s own non-compliance with that agreement. "We’ve built a plutonium disposal plant. We spent our money on it! Are we richer than the United States or what?" Putin asked.
Heavy involvement of politics in the world of international sports was another distinguishing feature for which 2016 will go down in history. After Moscow was accused of official support for doping in sports the West unleased a campaign to bar Russia from major world competitions, including the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Russia eventually managed to secure its participation in the Rio Games, although its team had to be slashed considerably. As for parathletes from Russia, international sports functionaries took a far harder line against them to ban all of them from the Paralympics. Then there followed decisions on whether Russia should be stripped of the right to host a number of international events, including 2017 world cups in bobsleighing, biathlon and speed skating.
From the very outset Putin demanded his subordinates’ full cooperation with international organizations in investigating the doping affair. At the same time he emphatically denied Russia had a government-sponsored system that forced athletes to take outlawed substances.
The Russian leader interpreted the flare-up of the doping scandal as yet another attempt at putting external pressures on Russia, which the country has experienced for years. "They used every means at hand - from falsehoods about a Russian aggression, propaganda and intervention in other countries’ elections to the victimization of our athletes, including parathletes," Putin said.
He slammed the decision to disqualify the Russian paralympic team as one going beyond the bounds of law, morality and humanism.
"We have become witnesses to the humanistic basics of sports and of Olympism arrogantly abused by politicians, to biased, time-serving decisions made and to such qualities as greed and, possibly, cowardice, prevail over the principle of Olympism," Putin said.
In his opinion, international anti-doping agencies require fundamental approval of their activity that would make them immune to political pressures. He emphasized the existence of double standards in that field. As follows from evidence obtained by anonymous hackers from the Anti-Doping Administration and Management System (ADAMS) many world sports stars in various years used prohibited substances for therapeutic purposes.
But every dark cloud has a silver lining. Putin hopes that the doping row will encourage Russia to create "the world’s most advanced system of struggle against this evil." After the Richard McLaren commission published a report charging Russia with doping abuse Putin created an independent non-governmental anti-doping commission under the chairmanship of IOC honorary member Vitaly Smirnov, whose authority in the sports world is impeccable. Also, Putin asked Russia’s law enforcement agencies to investigate the affair. At the end of November he signed a law establishing criminal punishment for inducing athletes into taking prohibited substances.
At the beginning of 2016 Russian-Turkish relations were at the point of freezing after the November 2015 attack by a Turkish military jet against a Russian Sukhoi-24 bomber in Syrian airspace. On January 1 Moscow suspended the visaless regime in bilateral relations. A little earlier the flow of Russian tourists to Turkey ran dry. A food import embargo and other measures against Ankara were taken. The list of demands addressed to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remained the same, apologies for the downed plane being the main one.
Few thought the Turkish leader would ever agree to this, but Putin’s strategy proved correct. At the end of June the Kremlin received a message with words of apology from Erdogan. Turkey arrested Alparslan Celik, the man Moscow regards as an accomplice in the murder of Russian air pilot Oleg Peshkov. After the failure of the July 15 government coup attempt in Turkey the pilots who shot down Russia’s Sukhoi-24 fighter-bomber went to jail.
The mending of Russian-Turkish political relations was as fast as their deterioration at the end of 2015. After several telephone conversations between Putin and Erdogan there followed a Russian-Turkish summit meeting in St. Petersburg in August. Putin and Erdogan have since met twice - on the sidelines of the G20 summit in China’s Hangzhou in September and then in Istanbul in October, when Putin attended the international energy forum. On Putin’s instructions the Russian government began to restore trading and economic relations.
In recent weeks the intensity of Putin-Erdogan contacts soared further, largely in the process of the search for solutions on the Syrian track. In the last days of November Putin and Erdogan talked by telephone thrice, and in December they had five telephone conversations.
The murder of Russia’s ambassador Andrey Karlov in Ankara - an unprecedented and outrageous attack - was unanimously described by both leaders as a provocation and an encroachment on Russian-Turkish relations. Putin said the attack would not upset the normalization of bilateral relations.
"We are aware of the importance and significance of Russian-Turkish relations, and we will be doing our utmost to develop them further on," Putin said.
Despite their initial disagreements Russia and Turkey and also Iran toward the end of December achieved something that had looked impossible just recently. They persuaded the parties to Syria’s internal conflict to conclude truce, thus paving the way for peace talks.
As a matter of fact, the Syrian issue was the focal point of Russia’s foreign policy in 2016. The Russian aerospace group dispatched to Syria in the autumn of 2015 has considerably altered the lineup of forces in that country, which could not but have noticeable effects on the international political agenda. The successes achieved by Russia and the Syrian authorities brought about a situation where, as Putin said, the foreign media’s task was "to belittle and hush up the latest developments and to under-inform their viewers, listeners and readers" on that score. "First they were talking about the need for isolating Russia after the well-known events in Crimea. Then it became clear that it is impossible. With the beginning of our operation in Syria the awareness that such destructive actions against our country would reach nowhere became absolutely evident," Putin said.
At the same time the Russian leader is certain that belittling or hushing up Russia’s role and successes in Syria would be impossible, "however strongly some may wish to do that." This is well-seen in the publications of many respectable mass media in the West. The Washington Post said in an editorial last March that Russia had managed to achieve a great deal in Syria and to stage its comeback as a major actor in the Middle East, as well as to largely neutralize attempts by the West to arrange for a diplomatic isolation of Moscow. The Wall Street Journal said the same month that the Russian aerospace group’s operation in Syria revealed the real potential of the Russian Armed Forces and their ability to cope with complex tasks away from the national borders.
Throughout the year Russia’s tactic in Syria was repeatedly revised and adjusted to the current situation. In January, strikes against terrorists in Syria were stepped up. In March, Putin ordered the pullout of the bulk of the Russian group from Syria, although it was announced at the same time that the operation to provide air support for the Syrian army would go ahead. A special task force led by the aircraft carrier The Admiral Kuznetsov arrived in the Mediterranean in the autumn.
The Russian military’s center for the reconciliation of the warring factions in Syria played a significant role in persuading more than a thousand communities and hundreds of armed opposition groups to join the ceasefire. An outdoor concert by the Mariinsky Theater’s orchestra under Valery Gergiyev in Palmyra, retaken from the terrorists in March (although last autumn that city fell back into the hands of the Islamic State - a terrorist group outlawed in Russia) went down in the history of world culture. At the end of last summer and in early autumn the Russian aerospace group helped the Syrian army beat back the terrorists’ powerful offensive in Aleppo and then eventually regain that large Syrian city from the militants. Some western countries’ reaction to this was hysterical. Before, the very same countries preferred to turn a blind eye on the horrors of war when the Syrian army had been retreating. This propaganda campaign reached nowhere.
Alongside this Russia for the whole year was proactively involved in Syrian settlement talks with the United States, but neither the joint statement on the cessation of hostilities Moscow and Washington issued last February nor the truce deal clinched last September yielded the desired effect. Putin later expressed regret his personal agreements on a settlement in Syria with his US counterpart Barack Obama had not worked and that certain forces in Washington turned out to be strong enough to ruin those plans. "All this demonstrates an unexplainable, irrational determination of the Western countries to repeat the very same mistakes again and again, to step on the same rake," Putin said.
The latest events indicate, though, that there is a chance of achieving accord in Syria without the Americans involved, at least at the first stage. At his annual news conference Putin said that the last phases of the operation to retake Aleppo proceeded without combat clashes. Trilateral cooperation by Russia, Turkey and Iran and the attitude of the Syrian authorities themselves played a role. "It was a major humanitarian operation, the largest-ever in the modern world," Putin said.
Lastly, Putin on December 29 declared the Syrian government forces and the armed opposition had concluded an agreement to establish ceasefire and enter into peace talks in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana. This arrangement is a joint achievement of Russia, Turkey and Iran. Russia hopes that Egypt will join the Syrian settlement agreement, too, and then there will follow other countries of the region - Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, and Iraq and also the United States - when President-elect Donald Trump takes office.
If the latest Syrian settlement agreements are implemented to the full, in contrast to the previous arrangements with the United States, this will undoubtedly become a major foreign policy success for Putin and his partners in Turkey, Iran and Syria itself. The results will be hopefully in sight in 2017.
Amid other world events in 2016 the Ukrainian crisis faded into the background somewhat. Although the Normandy process is stalled and no large-scale combat operations in Donbass, like those seen in 2014 and 2015, are underway, peace in the east of Ukraine is nowhere near.
At a meeting in Berlin last October the leaders of the Normandy Quartet (Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine) tried to give a fresh impetus to the settlement process. In part, they agreed on drafting a road map plan to implement the Minsk Accords of February 12, 2015. Incidentally, everything essential for the implementation of Minsk-2 has long been in place, but Kiev still torpedoes the implementation of the decisions made, with both Berlin and Paris turning a blind eye on that.
While recognizing that the Normandy format "has not demonstrated super-effectiveness," the Russian leader believes it should be adhered to. "There is nothing else," Putin explains. "Should we lose this instrument, the situation will start degrading rapidly, which would be very undesirable."
Putin last year was among those who contributed heavily to an historic agreement to cut oil production. At their meeting in Vienna on December 10 the OPEC member-states and major oil producers outside the cartel put signatures to an agreement to jointly downscale oil production by 1.7-1.8 million barrels a day. Russia will cut its oil production by 300,000 barrels. The Russian authorities hope that in the first half of 2017 the redundant oil will leave the market and the prices of hydrocarbons will regain balance.
"We hope that they will be stabilized at the current level," Putin told the annual news conference.
In Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s opinion, it was Putin who largely promoted the agreement with the OPEC. "The odds were no agreement might be concluded at all." The Vice-President of the Russian oil major LUKOIL, Leonid Fedun, too, said that the Russian leader was "directly involved in making the decision" to reduce oil production. Moreover, Reuters quoted sources as saying that Putin also largely takes the credit for the agreement the OPEC countries achieved among themselves first, although Russia is not an OPEC member. Reuters said it was the Russian leader who helped Saudi Arabia and Iran eliminate their disagreements on that score, which testified to Russia’s growing influence in the Middle East since the beginning of the Russian military operation in Syria.
Participation of foreign investors in the privatization of a 19.5% stake of the Russian oil major Rosneft - the biggest transaction on the oil and gas market in the outgoing year - should certainly be added to the list of Moscow’s successes.
France’s former prime minister and future presidential candidate, Francois Fillon, speaking in an interview on the radio recently complained that the Western countries over the past few years turned Russia into a "phantom enemy," although it is of no real threat to the West.
Incidentally, talking about a Russian threat too often is a sure way of developing faith in it. This is precisely what apparently has happened to part of the political elite in the United States, where in the presidential election year Putin turned out to be one of the key figures in the election campaign without ever wishing to become one (he even featured in an episode of the animated cartoon series The Simpsons). It was also very unusual to see the Republicans, who have traditionally followed a far harder line in relations with Russia, and their representative Donald Trump take a far more constructive stance towards Moscow than Hillary Clinton and her Democratic Party.
The Kremlin is far from feeling any illusions and it by no means expects that the sanctions will be gone as soon as Trump takes over. When the US election campaign was still in progress, Putin dismissed rumors of Moscow’s alleged support for Trump as "delirium" and "nonsense."
He reaffirmed, though, that he really wished to have a constructive and business-like relationship with the US president-elect "to ensure this should do good the United States and Russia and the people of both countries." After the election victory Trump and Putin talked by telephone to speak in favor of joint efforts to normalize Russian-US relations.
The State Duma has been criticized much for bursting into applause when told Trump had emerged the winner in the election, but in fact Russian legislators eagerly hailed not so much a specific candidate’s victory as the defeat of the anti-Russian agenda. Whatever Trump may do and say now, it is already clear that conciliatory remarks towards Russia and Putin in person have not scared the US electorate away from the Republican candidate, while Clinton’s strong intention to conduct an iron hand policy in relations with the Kremlin on the contrary failed to win enough supporters to her side. The Democrats’ stake on aggressive rhetoric against Moscow failed to yield the expected dividends.
Something similar happened in 2016 in other countries. The British voters were being told again and again that Brexit would make Putin happy. It did not help. French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were trying really hard to persuade their EU partners to join sanctions against Russia. In the meantime in France itself the popularity ratings of politicians who favour cooperation with Russia (from Marine Le Pen to Francois Fillon) are far higher. With the anti-Russian sanctions in their third year it has become evident that ordinary people on either side of the Atlantic are either indifferent towards Russia-related themes or even favorably disposed towards Moscow. What is still more important, they are very far from seeing Russia and Putin as threats, however hard some of their countries’ politicians may be trying to make them think otherwise.