Russia’s Mideast help muddles Ukraine message
Western sanctions and international outrage over the invasion of Ukraine were supposed to leave Russian President Vladimir Putin isolated and weakened on the world stage, but that was before the surge of international attacks by the Islamic State found President Obama and other Western leaders suddenly in need of Moscow’s help.
The unexpected alignment of Russian and French forces against the Islamic State in response to the Paris attacks and the bombing of a Russian airliner over Egypt suggests Russia under Mr. Putin may even be eager to take a far more active and visible role in the struggling U.S.-led campaign to contain the extremists.
But the Obama administration should be wary, according to analysts, that serious cooperation from Moscow is likely to come with major strings attached, as Mr. Putin attempts to exploit his newfound status as leverage to pressure Washington and the European Union into easing Ukraine-related sanctions leveled against him last year.
“Is Russia going to want to extricate some sort of sanctions concession from the West for actually targeting the Islamic State, which the Russian military has not really done before this week?” asked Boris Zilberman at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. “It’s certainly a plausible scenario.”
On another front, the prospect of enhanced coordination with Moscow against the Islamic State — also known as ISIS and ISIL — also may depend on U.S. willingness to allow Mr. Putin to keep Syrian President Bashar Assad in power, at least in the short term.
“I think the situation may be more complicated for us than it is for the Russians,” said Mr. Zilberman. “They’re certainly not separating these things as much as we are, and since they’re the ones in the center of all this now, how are we going to react if they end up trying to link” a Syria campaign with concessions on Ukraine?
“Are we going to tell the Russians these are separate issues?”
That question may prove most precarious for Washington’s European allies. EU leaders in recent months signaled that they would vote to keep sanctions in place against Moscow before they expire at the end of January, but the dramatic developments of the past few weeks — a bomb that downed a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula, a bombing in Lebanon and the coordinated attacks on soft targets in the heart of Paris — have scrambled the debate.
On Tuesday, France invoked a never-before-used “mutual defense clause” to ask its EU partners to provide support for its post-Paris attack military operations against the Islamic State in the Middle East. Although the 28-nation bloc unanimously agreed, some wondered why NATO was not being tapped by for such support.
A key reason may be that Russia, which is neither a NATO nor an EU member, would be far less willing to join the coalition if NATO took the lead against the Islamic State.
Within hours of the French pleas, Mr. Putin ordered the Russian missile cruiser Moskva, currently in the Mediterranean, to start cooperating with the French.
Russian forces have since joined in French strikes against the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa province in northeastern Syria, and European leaders are seen to be backing Russia’s expanding role. French President Francois Hollande plans back-to-back trips to Washington and Moscow over the next week with the expressed goal of building “a large coalition” to act “decisively” against the Islamic State.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said Wednesday that Russia’s push for a “grand coalition” to defeat the Islamic State was a “very right proposal.” Mr. Renzi told Italy’s Sky TG24 TV that he shares Mr. Putin’s call for a grand coalition of countries similar to the one that came together in World War II to defeat Adolf Hitler.
Syria and Ukraine
But the Ukraine sanctions still hang in the backdrop. The Obama administration insists its decision on whether to ease them will have nothing to do with Russian military actions in the Middle East.
“We keep a clear separation between Ukraine and Russia’s actions in Syria,” one official told The Washington Times on Wednesday.
The U.S. and the EU imposed sanctions on dozens of Russian individuals and companies after Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014. The restrictions were subsequently ramped up to target certain government-owned banks and corporations as part of an effort to deter further Russian military support for separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry has said the sanctions could be eased, but only if Moscow abides by the Minsk Protocol, which established a cease-fire in February between Ukrainian military forces and the Russia-backed separatists.
Moscow has appeared to be complying. But Mr. Putin’s move in late September to begin deploying Russian military assets to Syria — initially to back embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad — suggested that the sanctions were having little impact on the Russian president’s wider strategic calculus.
Before this week, senior administration officials roundly criticized the Russians for dropping bombs on U.S.-backed rebels in Syria opposed to Mr. Assad, rather than targeting Islamic State strongholds.
Although Mr. Kerry has said the administration aims to work with Moscow toward a political solution to Syria’s war, the Assad issue has kept the two sides divided. The Russians are seen to have played spoiler at recent multiparty talks on the matter.
Anna Borshchevskaya, a fellow focused on Russia’s Middle East posture at the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, argues that Mr. Putin’s actions in the Middle East are being made out of “desperation,” reflecting a weak economy and plunging prices for Russia’s greatest assets: oil and natural gas.
“Putin may use this situation as a bargaining chip to get the West to lift sanctions in response for cooperation in the Middle East,” Ms. Borshchevskaya said. “He is using the situation well to his advantage.”
But, she added, “regardless of whether or not he succeeds, Russia’s [long-term] problems that are largely of Putin’s making will not go away.”
Others say it is premature to conclude that Russia is serious about coordinating with France or any other Western power in Syria.
Simond de Galbert, a visiting fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the notion of serious “military cooperation or coordination between the French and Russian military is very much unclear and unknown.”
“So far, Russia’s intervention in Syria has only had bad consequences for France and Europe,” he said, adding that the common interest on Islamic State terrorism between the two does not change the reality that France stands with the U.S. against Mr. Assad while Russia backs the Syrian leader.
Further, Mr. de Galbert said, “whatever happens on Syria, I don’t think that a link is to be made with France’s positions on Ukraine and on the need to maintain sanctions against Russia.”
President Obama talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin prior to a session of the G-20 summit in Turkey.