So it finally happened. After weeks of anticipation and speculation, the man himself appeared in front of the world to make an offer too good to refuse. On Monday, President Putin addressed the UN General Assembly and called for a broad coalition to fight Islamic State.
This was expected. Russia has been building up its forces in Syria over the past few weeks. It has deployed marines, armoured personnel vehicles, attack helicopters, and fighter jets, as well as constructing a camp for up to 2,000 Russian troops in Syria.
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On Sunday, President Putin had also made an appearance on CBS 60 Minutes where he projected confidence, joked and snickered, and played tough – all in an effort to charm America into supporting the offer to jointly fight IS.
But the offer is a ruse. Russia’s build up has little to do with defeating IS and much to do with propping up Assad and ensuring that Syria continues to be a key ally in the Middle East. Russia’s military deployments have been primarily geared towards assisting Syrian forces hold territory already under their control as well as protecting the Russian naval base in Tartus. Fighting IS provides a useful pretext that, at face value, appeals to the West.
Russia’s build up in Syria is also linked to Ukraine … From the Kremlin’s perspective, the two are in fact intimately connected.
The timing of this build up was driven by a series of tactical losses by Assad’s forces over the summer. By reinforcing Assad’s military, Moscow is shoring up Assad’s regime but also seeking to become indispensable for any diplomatic solution to the conflict. For the moment, Assad is still seen by Russia as the best guarantor of its interests in Syria. This could change quickly however. And when it does, Moscow wants to be in a position of kingmaker.
Russia’s build up in Syria is also linked to Ukraine – notwithstanding President Putin’s claim in Sunday’s interview that the two issues had nothing to do with each other. From the Kremlin’s perspective, the two are in fact intimately connected.
Russia finds itself in a bind in the Donbas. Kyiv has proven surprisingly resilient to Moscow’s strategy of using the war in eastern Ukraine to destabilise the rest of Ukraine. As the separatist forces are not able themselves to take more territory, any new offensive would require Russian troops. But this would lead to further sanctions.
The current sanctions regime – and the threat of more sanctions – has proven remarkably effective in constraining Moscow and extracting a cost for its transgressions in Ukraine. With few good options in Ukraine, Moscow is digging in for the long haul.
It is also trying to use the offer of being cooperative on Syria to break its international isolation and gain concessions on Ukraine. Around the same time as Russia accelerated its deployment in Syria, Russia changed tack in eastern Ukraine agreeing to a ceasefire and taking a less obstructive approach in the Minsk process.
This new tack in Ukraine – along with the prisoner swap with Estonia on Saturday – was no doubt intended to improve the atmosphere ahead of Putin’s speech in the UN General Assembly.
But Moscow also hopes that the offer of cooperation on ISIS and the prospect of an end to the conflict in Syria will lead to the US and EU easing economic sanctions and, ultimately, leaving Ukraine within Russia’s sphere of influence.
A weakened and divided Europe that desperately wants an end to the influx of Syrian refugees suits the Kremlin’s strategy just fine
Russian overtures on Syria have already led to Russia’s isolation being broken. There has been an intensification of dialogue between Russia and the United States. The US Secretary of Defence has spoken to the Russian Defence Minister and initiated military-to-military contacts. On Monday, Presidents Obama and Putin also held their first bilateral meeting since the Ukraine crisis began.
Meanwhile, the refugee crisis is conveniently overwhelming Europe and pitting the member states of the European Union against each other. A weakened and divided Europe that desperately wants an end to the influx of Syrian refugees suits the Kremlin’s strategy just fine – especially if Russia is seen as integral for any solution to the conflict in Syria.
Some have already bought into this notion. German Vice Chancellor and economy minister, Sigmar Gabriel, has said that Europe cannot continue sanctions against Russia while at the same time asking for its help on Syria.
But it would be a big mistake to ease sanctions. Despite the recent de-escalation in the Donbas, the situation continues to be extremely grave. Russia has not given up on its objective to subdue Ukraine. While the fighting has decreased, Russia maintains the ability to ignite fighting at any time it wishes. It maintains troops in Ukraine and is constructing a permanent military base across the border.
Russia is far from being in full compliance with the Minsk Agreement. An easing of sanctions would greatly reduce any incentive Moscow has to withdraw its troops and hand back control over the border to Ukraine. Reducing pressure now would mean the likely end of the Minsk Agreement.
The EU and US sanctions policy has been remarkably effective. To ease sanctions now without complete compliance of Minsk would be tantamount to giving up on Ukraine. This would be highly detrimental not only for security and stability in the Eastern neighbourhood but also for the fundamental principles upon which the European security order is built.
It is also questionable whether Russia’s increased involvement in Syria actually brings the conflict closer to an end or provides a solution to the refugee crisis. Rather, by buttressing Assad’s regime, Russia may very well end up prolonging the fighting and accelerating the exodus of Syrians.
By buttressing Assad’s regime, Russia may very well end up prolonging the fighting and accelerating the exodus of Syrians
Seeing Assad empowered, Syria’s eight million internally displaced and four million refugees are hardly going to conclude that it’s now safer to go back home. It’s the Assad regime that is primarily responsible for the war and displacement of Syrians. Instead, Syrians will in increasing numbers give up on their own country and decide that Europe provides the best hope for a decent future.
Even if Russia’s insertion into the equation provides the impetus for a deal – for instance a transitional period, elections, and Assad’s departure – Russia will ensure that its strongman will take over. And the war with IS will no doubt continue. It is hard to see that this will provide any just or lasting peace.
And here is the discreet charm of Vladimir Putin. He makes an offer of war that would supposedly bring about peace. This peace seems too good to be true because it is. It is a peace that would leave everyone – except for Russia – worse off. Surrealism at its best.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.