Rus­sia’s Mideast help mud­dles Ukraine mes­sage

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitic­s - BY GUY TAY­LOR

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.

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