Russian President Vladimir Putin is now inviting Iran, Turkey and Egypt to join what he sees as an expanded Eurasian economic bloc led by Russia. To achieve that, he is ready to expose some of the contradictions in his perverted world view. Pictured: Putin poses with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Tehran, Iran on July 19, 2022. (Photo by Sergei Savostyanov/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)
What a difference six months of a seemingly unwinnable war makes to a leader's self-esteem. As the Russian war against Ukraine grinds on, Vladimir Putin, the self-styled conqueror, seems to be descending from his high horse like the statue of Peter the Great in Pushkin's famous poem, to mingle with the lowly multitude.
The first epiphany of this neo-Putin was observed last month in Ashgabat, capital of Turkmenistan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia. The new image was confirmed last week with a visit to Tehran. The first new feature was that Putin was prepared to go through proper official visits rather than his usual blitzkrieg style of coming and getting out in a few hours.
This time there was no sign of his eight-meter long anti-Covid desk to keep foreign interlocutors as far from him as possible. Also, this time he was prepared to go beyond a mere handshake with his chief hosts and shake the hands of all who happened to be around. He did not go as far as reviving the Brezhnevian tradition of kissing of foreign comrades, but did offer hearty hugs.
In Ashgabat, no longer wearing high-heel shoes to appear a bit taller, he reminded the Turkmen of a downsized Tengri, the Central Asian god of the highest mountain peak, coming to distribute favors. His instrument was a fountain pen with which he signed several "agreements" to inject countless billions of the money has doesn't have into Turkmen, Iranian and other Caspian littoral states' economies.
But that was not all. Putin had a new message: The necessity of authoritarian states banding together to create a "new multipolar world order." He marketed this as a new idea, arguing that all nations should be allowed to "organize themselves and pursue their goals the way they wish."
His new idea, of course, is neither new nor tenable. It was first launched by the American diplomat George Kennan in the early stages of the Cold War and has become a shopworn cliché since the fall of the Soviet Empire and the Chinese Communists opting for capitalism.
In any case, a global political system with more than two opposite poles pulling the center away from each other is a recipe for chaos. What Putin, and Kennan before him, might have considered is a polycentric rather than multipolar world system.
In that case, we have always had a polycentric world system made of numerous formal or informal political, economic and military groupings and alliances.
During the Cold War, we had the Nonaligned Movement that at one point included a majority of the United Nations' members. Then we also had the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact, not to mention smaller military alliances or bilateral defense accords. The Arab League, the Organization of American States, the African Union, the European Union and the British Commonwealth were also part of a polycentric system.
Over time other "centers" were added: The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the G7 (at times G8), the G20, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Mercosur in South America and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
To all those we have to add the "centers" created under Russian leadership since the end of the Cold War: The Commonwealth of Independent States, which ironically includes both Russia and Ukraine, with its head office in Minsk, Belarus, the Eurasian Economic Union and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, plus the so-called BRICS group of which Russia is a key member and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation of which Russia is an "adjunct" member.
If we add the members of all those groups together, we have virtually the whole of 193 members of the United Nations in a polycentric system.
Putin is now inviting Iran, Turkey and Egypt to join what he sees as an expanded Eurasian economic bloc led by Russia. To achieve that, he is ready to expose some of the contradictions in his perverted world view.
For example, he invaded Ukraine ostensibly to stop NATO from "expanding" its territorial reach. But he is now ready to turn his face the other way while Turkey, a NATO member, snatches a chunk of Syrian territory as large as Donetsk in Ukraine. Putin says he wants to invest $400 billion in reviving Iran's moribund oil industry. But at the same time he is trying to steal as much of Iran's market share in oil as possible by offering discounts on the "brown" oil market, especially to China.
Putin says his new world order would allow "each nation to choose its way of life". Needless to say, his "each nation" doesn't include Georgia and Ukraine that he has already invaded, and Moldova that he plans to invade next, not to mention Syria where Russia blocks all avenues for a nation to choose its way of life.
In any case, choosing one's way of life is already a right guaranteed by the United Nations Charter. That, right, however, does not include invading other nations to prevent them from choosing their way of life.
The new kissing and smiling Putin claims that an anti-West bloc would be able to set the rules on the global stage.
He chooses to forget two points. First, there is no guarantee that a new anti-West bloc under Russian leadership would enjoy popular support in targeted nations such as India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Egypt. Secondly, in economic, military, scientific, cultural and sheer social appeal terms, Russia and its only reliable ally Belarus lack the seductive power needed to claim world leadership.
What Putin, echoing Tehran's mullahs, now calls "the arrogance alliance" consisting of the United States, the European Union, Japan, Great Britain, Canada and two dozen other countries from Mexico to Taiwan, South Korea and Australia, account for over 55% of global gross domestic product (GDP), while an $1.8 trillion GDP puts Russia just behind South Korea and just ahead of Iran by a whisker. Of the world's 500 largest companies, over 180 are headquartered in the European Union while Russia is host to only two, both state-owned Russian energy companies.
The post-Cold War polycentric system didn't do badly for Russia by helping it emerge from the sham egalitarian poverty of the Soviet era and build a new market-based economy capable of offering higher living standards.
In search of imaginary glory, Putin has put Russia's achievements of the past three decades at risk. Now that he knows he won't have that glory, he is trying to cling to another fantasy: a new world order made in the Kremlin.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.