Syria is the next arena on Vladimir Putin’s comeback tour

Fireworks explode above St. Basil’s cathedral during the “Spasskaya Tower” international military music festival at Moscow’s Red Square, Russia, September 10, 2015. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
Fireworks explode above St. Basil’s cathedral during the “Spasskaya Tower” international military music festival at Moscow’s Red Square, Russia, September 10, 2015. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Vladimir Putin is back. After spending more than a year in the doghouse for slicing off pieces of Ukraine, the Russian president has stepped back on center stage by appointing himself the indispensable arbiter in Syria’s civil war.

For Putin, the first quarter of 2014 began with the euphoria of hosting the world’s most expensive Winter Olympics and annexing Crimea before anybody noticed. But then things started going bad when the West sanctioned his cronies and their companies, kicked Russia out of the G8, and turned Putin into an international pariah. Australia’s then prime minister, Tony Abbott, threatened to tackle Putin according to Australian rules football at the G20 summit in Brisbane in November. The Russian leader left the gathering early with a bruised ego.

Less than a month ago, Putin had to watch from afar as German Chancellor Angela Merkel hosted Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and French President Francois Hollande in Berlin on Ukraine’s independence day. Merkel awkwardly explained that the meeting was intended to strengthen the so-called “Normandy Format” — an informal group whose fourth member is Putin.

That was then. Since the beginning of September, the guns in eastern Ukraine have finally fallen silent. A reshuffle in the leadership of the Donetsk separatist republic saw the removal of hardline ideologues. At the same time, Putin floated the idea of a global coalition to fight the spread of Islamic State in Syria and confirmed that Russia was supplying Bashar al-Assad’s regime with military assistance. Talk of Russian air strikes was “premature,” Putin told a reporter, implying that the right time might still come.

Syria is on everyone’s mind. Entire countries in the Middle East are imploding. The United States and its regional allies have been frustrated by the durability of Islamic State in resisting their air campaign. The European Union is struggling with the influx of thousands of Syrian refugees. Enter Putin, the only world leader who can talk to Assad and has the means to alter the calculus of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State.

When Putin travels to New York at the end of September to address the UN General Assembly for the first time in 10 years, his speech will be the most anticipated one. It will be Putin’s chance to remind the world — and the United States in particular — that Russia is still a great power that others can ignore or isolate at their own peril.

Putin is often compared with a chess player who can see 10 moves ahead. But if any sport really describes Putin’s politics, it’s his beloved judo, which teaches how to throw stronger opponents off balance. Tactical trickery trumps strategic vision. Putin often makes his Western counterparts appear faint-hearted or klutzy because of his ability to react to events decisively, without having to worry about negative media coverage at home or an angry electorate.

Another cliché about Putin is that he’s an inscrutable former spy. While he relishes a good surprise every now and then (see judo comparison), Putin is probably the most public Russian leader ever. State media outlets slavishly transmit the president’s every utterance, and the Kremlin press service continuously updates his bilingual website, creating a vast public record. Putin’s motives are rarely unfathomable for long.

To speak before the United Nations after such a rough year, Putin doesn’t need the rest of the world to dwell on his adventures in Ukraine. After all, 100 UN member states supported a resolution declaring the annexation of Crimea invalid, while only 11 voted against it. It’s a much better bet to come to New York with a proposal to save Syria from being engulfed by Islamic State.

“Russia has suggested the urgent formation of a broad coalition to fight extremism. It should unite all those who are ready to make, or are already making, a real contribution to the fight against terror, as the armed forces of Iraq and Syria are doing today,” Putin said on Tuesday.  “We are supporting the Syrian government against terrorist aggression. We are providing it — and will provide it in the future — with the necessary military and technical assistance, and we call on other countries to join us.”

That the West and many Arab countries consider any dealings with Assad a non-starter is secondary. Putin is positioning himself as a statesman with an alternative plan to a U.S. policy that isn’t working. Russia is not part of the problem but part of the solution, Putin is saying. While not everybody will believe him, at least the world is paying attention to him again.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to travel to Russia on Monday to discuss Russia’s growing presence in Syria with Putin. Secretary of State John Kerry has been on the phone with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov three times since the beginning of September. And the White House is in a bind as to whether Obama, who has done his best to ignore Putin, should dignify the Russian president with a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

The conundrum of whether or not to talk with Putin has also plagued European leaders since the annexation of Crimea. At the end of August, Merkel saw no reason to invite him to Berlin with Hollande and Poroshenko. A little more than two weeks later, the Kremlin announced that Putin would meet the other three leaders in Paris on October 2.

The hasty implementation of the ceasefire from the start of September shows just how much control the Kremlin has over the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. A top German diplomat explained that the Paris summit was warranted thanks to positive developments and the wish to keep up the momentum in the Minsk peace process.

The Kremlin is putting Ukraine on the back burner for now. What the German Foreign Ministry chose to interpret as progress is most likely just a delay. For Putin, the Paris meeting will be a victory lap after stealing the show in New York.

Lucian Kim is a Berlin-based journalist who has covered the Ukraine conflict for Slate, Newsweek, and BuzzFeed. He previously worked as a correspondent for Bloomberg News in Moscow and The Christian Science Monitor in Berlin.

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