Moscow – On a visit to Moscow, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told President Vladimir Putin that Russia and the United States could improve their ties ravaged by the Ukrainian crisis. Putin, in his turn, had unusual words of praise for U.S. President Barack Obama, crediting him with helping to find a solution for the Syrian crisis. But despite the friendly talk, Moscow and Washington remain far apart and there is no end in sight for the U.S.-led sanctions against Russia and general normalization of Russia-US ties. In the U.S. election year, any move by Obama’s administration to get back to normal in relations with Russia would be presented by the Republicans as a sign of weakness.
COMPROMISE ON SYRIA
Even though the U.S. and Russia sharply disagreed on Syria since the conflict there began five years ago, with Obama saying that Syrian President Bashar Assad must step down and the Moscow backing its Syrian ally, the rise of the Islamic State has helped bring Russian and U.S. positions closer.
Obama needs to demonstrate at least some positive dynamics in Syria to deflect accusations of failing to achieve his stated goal of seeing Assad leave and losing the country to the Islamic State. The White House has limited its action against the IS to airstrikes which have failed to produce any visible results, and the group has remained strong.
Russia’s air campaign in Syria has changed the course of conflict, preventing Assad’s downfall that seemed imminent last summer and helping his military launch a counteroffensive. While the U.S. has now all but abandoned its goal of ousting Assad, the White House now pins its hopes on Syria peace talks, expecting them to at least help reduce hostilities and produce a roadmap for peaceful transition. Those goals don’t contradict the interests of the Kremlin.
Putin’s key goal was to prevent the collapse of the Syrian government under the pressure of the U.S. and its allies, and that goal has been achieved. With the latest Syrian army’s offensive strengthening Assad’s hands in peace talks in Geneva, discussions there can drag on for a long time and Russia will maintain its leverage. Putin doesn’t necessarily want Assad to stay at the helm, he just needs a friendly regime in Syria that will be receptive to Russian interests there. And above all, the Russian leader sees the Syrian conflict as a way for Russia to reclaim its role as a key global power on equal par with the United States.
With Russia and the United States co-sponsoring a cease-fire deal for Syria that has largely held since Feb. 27, that task has been met. Obama’s administration will continue to need Russia to keep the Geneva peace talks going, and it will help raise Russia’s global profile.