MOSCOW BLOG: Putin looking limber for his UN Syria leap

By bne IntelliNews September 25, 2015

Ben Aris in Moscow -


Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet with US President Barack Obama on the sidelines of a UN general assembly to be held in New York on September 28, their first meeting since 2013.

The White House said Russian sanctions will be high on the agenda, but the meat of the conversation will almost certainly concern the situation in Syria. Obama has balked at holding a meeting with Putin, afraid it will make him look weak on the domestic stage.

However, with millions of refugees clogging up Europe's borders as they flee from the four-and-half-year-long civil war in Syria, Europe has been thrown into crisis and all parties feel that "something must be done". Russia has inflamed the situation. The military effort of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has been on its back foot in recent months until the Russians recently decided to increase their military aid. Russia has been supplying Syria with materiel throughout the conflict, but now it is doing so openly.

Putin is playing a tough geopolitical card ahead of his UN speech on September 28: he has shown that he can destabilise Ukraine with impunity and will scupper any reform or regeneration effort in that country until Russia's interests are respected. Now with the increase in Russian aid to Assad he is playing the same card in Syria. The difference is that neither the US or the EU have much in the way of strategic commercial assets in Ukraine and most of the refuges from the Donbas conflict have ironically fled to Russia. However, with well over a million Syrian refugees on the EU border, the European states are feeling the impact of the Syrian crisis directly.

Desperate times - but for who?

There has been a lot of diplomatic manoeuvring ahead of the Putin-Obama meeting. The White House made it clear to the press that it was the Russians who asked for the upcoming meeting, not the US. White House press secretary Josh Earnest told the New York Times that the Kremlin was not just keen on a meeting but "desperate" for one.

The US spin on the meeting is twofold: to prevent Obama from looking weak by meeting with the Russian president, who has been cast as a modern-day Hitler by much of the international media; and to emphasis that the sanctions regime and other pressure on Russia is working, hence by extension to make the White House's policies look effective.

Russia's motives are less clear, even if the Kremlin position is well evident: it wants to have a central say about what happens next in Syria. But beyond that, what Putin hopes to get out of a meeting with Obama remains to be seen. 

While the Russian leader has successfully deflected attention from his campaign in Ukraine to focus the international community on the Syrian crisis ahead of his UN speech, the country's economy is feeling a great deal of pain. And although Russia has enough resources and reserves to tough it out for at least another two years, it is also becoming increasingly clear that it cannot keep this up forever. A prolonged Iran-style sanctions regime will seriously hinder Russia's long-term development prospects, which will eventually manifest itself in domestic politics. That is still a long way off, but the Kremlin needs to find a resolution to the showdown eventually.

Syrian opportunity

The Syrian refugee crisis provides a perfect opportunity to begin walking things back from open conflict as the international community, led by the Germans, has now expressly said there is no solution in Syria without Russia's help.

The content of Putin's speech at the UN is fairly easy to predict in this light. Putin will frame his arguments in terms of the international cooperation to fight Islamic extremism and terrorism, but with countries cooperating on a multi-polar basis. He is also likely to stress that Russia remains a natural partner for Europe and indeed has remained open to international business and investment throughout the stand-off with the US since the annexation of Crimea last year.

And probably he will remind the UN that the emerging markets have more or less emerged and increasingly cooperating with each other so that the world’s economy has become truly global.

Specifically on Ukraine, Putin will certainly emphasis that the terms of the Minsk II peace deal need to be adhered to. This involves Ukraine making constitutional changes to give more autonomy to the regions, an amnesty for fighters in the East, and ensuring scheduled regional elections are held in October.

Most of this is in motion but the successful completion of these Minsk II terms is not a given. The danger is if Minsk II fails then Russia will be left with a frozen conflict in Ukraine and permanent sanctions on its economy that could condemn it to stagnation for a decade.

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