Vladimir Yakunin, the former Russian Railways boss and KGB spy, leaned forward to describe the way the world is going. It was the middle of October, and he had just convened an annual gathering of statesmen from countries that are, as a rule, sympathetic to the Kremlin. Held each fall on the Greek island of Rhodes, the summit provides a chance for Russia’s allies to compare notes, assess opportunities and make plans for the future. Yakunin, an old friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, serves as the master of ceremonies.
The global context this year seemed to suit his message perfectly. Five days before the summit opened at the Rhodes Palace, the island’s most luxurious hotel, the U.S. had announced that it was withdrawing U.S. troops in northern Syria, effectively abandoning the Kurds and giving Turkey and Russia free reign to do what they want in the region. The U.K.’s plan to leave the European Union had also just hit another embarrassing snag, as its government was forced to ask for yet another Brexit extension. Yakunin clasped his hands as he considered what all this meant for Russia and the world. “We can say the West is declining,” he told TIME. “The global architecture is changing.” He took a sip from his espresso, and added, “The liberal order will be changing.”
But judging by the turnout in Rhodes this year, Yakunin and his allies back in Moscow are not in a prime position to define the terms of a new world order. The only head of state who showed up was Mahamadou Issoufou, the President of Niger. The handful of attending politicians from Europe were years out of office. Few stayed for the entire weekend. Martin Schulz, the former President of the European Parliament, left before the end of the first day of the conference.
It seemed like a sign of the times for Russia. Compared to its influence in the late Soviet era, when Yakunin served as a KGB spy under diplomatic cover in New York City, the Kremlin today has little claim to the status of a modern superpower. Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has played a central role in conflicts from the Middle East to Latin America. But its messengers, like Yakunin, have a tendency to overstate their country’s strength. Political experts insist that Putin lacks a strategy for filling the vacuum that President Donald Trump has left behind in Syria. Nor does Moscow have enough money to sustain a system of reliable alliances, the way that China has tried to do by investing billions of dollars each year in countries across Africa.
“Russia can’t really fill this vacuum,” neither in Syria nor the broader Middle East, says Stefan Meister, head of the Program for Eastern Europe and Russia at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. “It will only play with it. It can destroy, but it’s not able to build up the region.” Whether President Trump likes it or not, the U.S. is still the only power that can do that, says Shada Islam, a director at a Brussels based think tank, Friends of Europe. “The player in chief is still the U.S.—it’s the power that counts in the region,” she says.
The Russians, of course, don’t quite see it that way. One of Yakunin’s guests in Rhodes this year was Vyacheslav Nikonov, the Chairman of the Education and Science Committee in the Russian parliament, who also happens to be the grandson of the legendary Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov. (The Molotov cocktail was named after him, though he was not its inventor; during the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939-1940, Finnish guerillas used the crude petrol bombs against the Russian troops.)
Less than a week after the forum in Rhodes, some 1,000 miles to the east in the city of Manbij, Russian troops faced no resistance as they moved into northern Syria. It was a scene of triumph for Moscow to broadcast on state TV, as Russian reporters streamed videos from bases that had just been abandoned by American troops.
But those images were hardly a reliable measure of Russia’s power in the Middle East. Since Putin intervened in the Syrian war in 2015 to defend the regime of Bashar Assad, Moscow’s role in the region has come with costs that Russia will have trouble bearing in the long run. “Many in Russia are reluctant to place the country in the position of a security provider because this would involve multifarious responsibilities. This is understood at Russia’s top leadership,” says Elena Chebankova, a Russian politics lecturer at Lincoln University. Russia will not go too far to act as “a world ‘policeman’ to the extent as the USSR did,” she says.
In July, Russia unveiled a proposal for a new alliance in the Middle East, dubbed the Collective Security Concept for the Persian Gulf Region. Its aim is to create stability in the Persian Gulf and involve major global and regional players including China, Russia, India, the U.S. and the E.U. But the plan left many Gulf officials wondering what Russia would do to guarantee the security it promised, says Nikolay Kozhanov, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. “And the answer was quite obviously, nothing,” says Kozhanov. “Russia is a major player without any special cards in its hands.”
During Putin’s visits to Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia in October, their leaders rolled out the red carpet for the Russian President and declared a new era in relations with Moscow. But the trips turned out to be short on substance, says Rauf Mammadov, an energy policy expert at the Middle East Institute, a U.S.-based think tank. Putin came away with $3 billion in deals—a modest sum compared to the $300 billion Trump secured during his visit to Saudi Arabia in 2017.
Saudi Aramco, the kingdom’s oil company, signed up to buy a stake in a new gas project in the Russian Arctic October 2018, but so far it has not materialized. A much lauded partnership between Russia’s sovereign wealth fund and a UAE-based global investment firm Mubadala was created in 2013, but the two sides have only allocated a third of the $7 billion that is up for investment. Russia’s economic ties to Persian monarchs are “still a nascent process,” says Mammadov. Likewise in Egypt, Putin agreed a deal in 2014 to build a Russian free-trade zone on the Suez Canal—a project that remains on the drawing board, wrapped up in Egyptian red tape. But that did not stop Egyptian President Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi from touting the project during a meeting with Putin in Russia last month.
The economic ties between Russia and China have also tended to produce more headlines than substance. Though Putin has hailed these relations as the “best they’ve ever been,” the primary proof has been the recent series of joint military drills, alongside plans announced last month for Russia to “radically enhance China’s defense capability” by helping the country to build a missile defense system.
Putin and his Chinese counterpart are more like frenemies than allies, says Mathieu Boulègue, a Research Fellow at the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House. For one thing, Russia is painfully aware that, with an economy 8 times smaller than that of China, it would need to accept the role of junior partner in any alliance with Beijing. “It’s not about cooperation,” says Boulègue, “but the messages it sends to the rest of the world.” The intended message is clear enough, he says: “‘We are not alone.’”
But loneliness may be wiser than some of the partnerships Russia is courting. Consider its recent moves in Africa. Through a series of security deals and mining ventures, the Kremlin managed to build an alliance in the last two years with the Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir—only to watch him deposed in a popular uprising this summer. At the end of October, Putin brought the heads of state from 43 African countries to Sochi, his favorite resort on the Black Sea coast.
The event produced another round of headlines around the world about Russia’s prowess in foreign affairs. But other than the pageantry, it was hard to see what Moscow stood to gain from these alliances. Only 3.7% of Russian goods end up in Africa today, while African goods account for just 1.1% of Russian imports. Russia’s current bilateral trade of $20 billion is just an eighth of China’s and half of the U.S.’s. Paul Stronski, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, sees Russian clout in Africa “tied to a handful of client states with relatively limited strategic significance.” That means Putin is still “nowhere near restoring the status that the Soviet Union once enjoyed on the continent,” Stronski told the BBC.
The same can be said of Yakunin. Though he clearly enjoyed the chance to address his audience of hundreds in Rhodes, the spectacle of the event felt hollow. “It has no real meaning other than maintaining an attractive image of Russia,” says Elisabeth Schimpfossl, the author of Rich Russians: From Oligarchs to Bourgeoisie, who first attended the Rhodes summit in 2009. Then, as now, the gathering was mostly a “PR event,” she says. And in that sense, at least, it resembles a lot of Russia’s recent moves in international affairs.