Nobody Wants to Join Putin's 'Dictators' Club'

Getting closer.

Photographer: Pool

At this weekend’s G-20 summit in Hangzhou, China, Russian President Vladimir Putin will be in attendance as the host’s guest of honor. It’s quite a turnaround for someone who was kicked out of the even more elite G-8 (now the G-7) just two years ago.

This change in fortunes for Putin, who gave a swaggering interview to Bloomberg News on Thursday, has some people worried. They fear that, with its increasing ties to China and Iran, and new outreach to Turkey and Egypt, Russia is forming a bloc of authoritarian countries to upset a global status quo set by the democratic nations of Europe and North America. Is this “dictators’ club an echo of the Tripartite Pact between Germany, Italy and Japan in World War II?

In a word: No. Russia’s economy remains weak -- and smaller than South Korea’s -- and even with huge increases in its military budget in recent years, Russia today hardly poses a threat comparable to that of the Soviet Union. In fact, these closer economic and diplomatic bonds may work to make Russia a more responsible global citizen -- more invested in an orderly economic system, and more vulnerable to economic sanctions.

It’s not hard to see ulterior motives in Russia’s energetic deal-making. Putin visited Chinese President Xi Jinping in June and pledged, by his tally, $50 billion worth of trade agreements. Since then, China announced that it would step up aid to aid to the pro-Russia Syrian government, and conduct military exercises with the Russian navy. The civil war in Syria has also brought Russia closer to Iran, as both have a stake in the survival of the dictator Bashar al-Assad, with Russia striking a number of weapons deals and commercial pacts with Iran.

Meanwhile, Russia is thawing relations with Turkey and Egypt. Following a failed coup in July, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan went to Moscow to apologize for the shooting down of a Russian fighter jet last year, and Putin reciprocated by lifting travel and import restrictions. “We see a clear interest on the part of Turkey’s president in restoring full-scale relations with Russia,” Putin told Bloomberg. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is negotiating a free-trade pact between Egypt and the Eurasian Economic Union, comprising Russia and several ex-Soviet states.

None of this, however, amounts to an effort to take on the West. China may fete Putin, for example, but in almost every economic dealing it is the dominant partner, with Russian entities increasingly dependent on Chinese cash and markets. China’s newfound interest in Syria and seeking Russian support for its patrols in the South China Sea reflect its desire for a global role commensurate with its economic might, not its support for Putin.

Likewise, Russia and Iran are friends of convenience; their “alliance” won’t survive any attempts by Russia to disturb Iran’s plans to become the dominant power in the region. As for Turkey and Egypt, they may flirt with Putin for short-term gains, but both are greatly dependent on the West. U.S. aid pays for many of Egypt’s military weapons, while Turkey -- one of Russia’s historic enemies -- is a member of NATO and has strong trade ties to Europe.

For now, then, Russia’s most direct threat to the West begins and ends in Eastern Europe, and its strongest weapons are spreading disinformation, conducting cyber-operations, and fomenting political unrest. The U.S. should continue to increase support for its NATO allies, keep the economic pressure on Russia to bring about a peaceful resolution in Ukraine, and play a more constructive role in Syria. Delusions of some new “axis of despots” shouldn’t get in the way of those straightforward and limited goals.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.