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1st Oct 2022

Feature

Obama-Putin handshake unlikely to end Western sanctions

  • Putin and Western leaders at G8 summit before the Ukraine war (Photo: G8 UK)

Ukraine is concerned that Putin's intervention in Syria could see the EU and US end Russia sanctions as part of a new alliance to fight the Islamic State (IS) group.

But Western diplomats and analysts say it is not so simple.

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Russian leader Vladimir Putin will on Monday (28 September), in a speech at the UN assembly in New York, propose the creation of a new “co-ordinating structure” to fight IS and to mitigate the refugee crisis.

He will, the same day, meet US leader Barack Obama for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine.

They will, diplomats predict, shake hands in front of cameras.

It comes after Russia sent ground troops and fighter jets to Syria in the past month.

It also comes before EU economic sanctions on Russia expire in January unless all member states agree to prolong them.

Putin’s idea - that Russia and the West fight alongside Russia’s ally, Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad - is gaining traction.

Germany and the UK have said that, while Assad must go in a future Syria deal, they might let him stay in place until conditions improve for a political transition.

The German vice-chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, from the centre-left SPD party in the German coalition, went further.

"Everyone should be smart enough to know you can't stick to sanctions permanently on the one hand and ask for co-operation [in Syria] on the other hand”, he told press on Friday.

His remarks met with criticism in Berlin.

“We don't want to mix things [Syria and Ukraine] up”, German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told ARD, a TV broadcaster.

“We won't let ourselves be blackmailed”, Peter Altmaier, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief of staff, told Der Tagesspiegel, a newspaper.

US diplomats are also saying they're ready to increase Russia sanctions if need be.

But the chatter has done little to reassure Kiev.

“We’ll be watching Obama’s body language, the tone of his statement, very carefully”, a Ukrainian diplomat told EUobserver.

“We also have concerns whether Merkel will stay firm ... We don’t want Syria to lead to another Yalta”, the diplomat added, referring to a post-WWII pact between the West and Russia on the division of Europe.

Russia’s status

For EU diplomats, Putin’s Syria gambit is more about rebuilding Russia's reputation in the long term than about a quick fix on sanctions, however.

“He wants to change the narrative and to deflect attention from Ukraine”, a senior EU diplomat told this website.

“He wants to ride into New York on a golden horse and to say: ‘America was wrong and I was right from the start. You can’t defeat IS without Assad'.”

A second EU diplomat said: “It’s not about getting carte blanche on Ukraine. It’s about Putin's ambition to restore Russia as a great power at the centre of the global security architecture, to show that it’s indispensible to the solution of any important crisis”.

Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Turkey, who now works for the Carnegie Europe think tank, agreed.

“Things don’t happen so neatly: You give me this and I give you that”, he told this website on the sanctions theory.

“Putin wants to show: ‘We’re here and we matter. You [the West] don’t get to decide whether Assad stays or goes’," he added.

“Putin annexed Crimea and Obama did nothing. He invaded east Ukraine and Obama still did almost nothing. Now he wants to show that he’s calling the shots in Syria whether Obama likes it or not”.

Symbolism

Analysts also note that Russia’s intervention in Syria is more “symbolic” than decisive.

Pierini said it has deployed some 200 soldiers and 24 fighter jets and attack helicopters in Latakia, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast.

He said it may be enough to keep Assad in power a bit longer, but not to defeat IS.

Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert at New York University, said Latakia’s barracks can house 2,000 soldiers.

He said it is enough for a small force to protect the base and to house the air crews and their ground support staff, but little more.

He noted it is too risky for Putin to “surge” his best troops into Syria because it would leave him vulnerable in Ukraine.

He also noted it takes 10 days for a round-trip for Russian ships - carrying the petrol, spare parts, and ammunition that would be needed to sustain a military campaign - from Russia's Black Sea base to Syria.

Beyond Ukraine

For his part, Germany’s Steinmeier, speaking to ARD, also said: “I hope that co-operation [with Russia] in the matter of Syria can help us to move forward in Ukraine”.

For some Polish diplomats Steinmeier’s aside also indicates that Germany is wobbly on sanctions.

But for Galeotti, the idea is that a Syria coalition could help Putin to make a peace deal on Ukraine and save face.

There’s little sign he is preparing to let go easily.

Ukraine says Russia has 9,000 soldiers on its territory. Its puppet regimes in east Ukraine are also consolidating power with “elections” in October and November.

But Galeotti said Russia’s hybrid force isn’t strong enough to conquer more ground.

“There’s a sense [in Russia] that, until now, there’s been no point in talking to the US - that the West just wants Russia to capitulate on Ukraine. And it can’t do that”, he told EUobserver.

“But co-operation in the Middle East could allow Putin to extricate himself from Ukraine", he added.

“Even my most optimistic contacts in the [Russian] foreign ministry don't expect a swift end to sanctions. They’re looking for cracks in the diplomatic wall around Russia ... they think there's genuine scope for co-operation [on IS] and they're looking for a statement that Russia can be part of a solution, not just a problem".

Ukraine, Nato rebuke Putin on Syria

The Ukrainian leader, and a top Nato general, have accused Russia of trying to hoodwink the international community on Syria.

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