29 September 2015

Putin: How To Come in From the Cold

I am in midtown New York watching Secret Service Suburbans accompanying world leaders to the United Nations. Traffic is a giant mess and the sidewalks are occupied by Falun Gong folks with their cultish demeanor, beatific smile and large brochures.

I am here to catch a glimpse of Vladimir Putin as I am curious of the man who, in the span of one week, achieved several momentous victories.

First off, he declared that his goals in Syria are lofty, laudable and lawful. He was trying to help the legitimate government of a country to stay in power. Unlike, he implied, its neighbors, who are all conspiring to bring him down.

He also added that he was trying to prevent another failed state, a clear reference to what Western powers did to Libya as they brought down Qaddafi (not to mention Iraq).

When you frame it like this, Putin looks like a serious statesman whereas all the others are petulant, pouty children whose actions are based on temper tantrums.

Secondly, he underlined the fact that Russian policy towards Syria was consistent from the beginning whereas all the other actors expressed shifting positions over time, including the US going from "no Assad" to "transitional Assad," to "maybe Assad."

Putin was hinting that this was because his approach was based on solid UN principles like sovereignty of a country and legitimacy of a government, whereas everyone else's positions were motivated by base calculations.

Thirdly, by offering a broad coalition against ISIS he was daring the US and EU countries to acknowledge that whatever he does in Ukraine, the Middle East is more important and they badly need him there. Especially in view of his massive military build up and enhanced intelligence gathering capabilities.

His proposal for intelligence coordination puts the Western powers in a difficult spot. How do you say no to that? But how can you be seen working closely with a power that seems to annex a country every year?

In that sense, this is also a clear signal to Ukraine. Putin is saying that the world will not lift a finger for them as long as Russia is such an important player in the Middle East. "I can annex the Eastern region and nothing will happen, so play ball or else" is Putin's loud and clear message.

Fourth, by establishing a major military presence in Syria and by expanding it rapidly, Putin is telling regional super powers that they can no longer act with impunity. There is a new sheriff in town. This is why Netanyahu rushed to Moscow only to be lectured by Putin.

And this is why Erdogan also visited Putin and he too was told that when it comes to Syria, Turkey has to listen to Russia. In fact, after the Moscow visit Erdogan acknowledged for the first time and very tersely thatAssad might be part of a transitional solution.

Finally, by expanding Russia's existing military base and by starting to build a new one, Putin is issuing a warning to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Stop supporting ISIS financially or I will come down on the side of the Shia powers. To make it clearer, he announced a tighter cooperation with Iran and Iraq in Syria. The meaning is unmistakable.

Now, I have long maintained that ISIS and its predecessor (and perhaps successor al Nusrah Front) were operating to ensure that Syria's ethnic and religious groups could never co-habitate. So even if ISIS was defeated (and I seriously doubt that this is possible) Syria can not be put back together. Too much blood was spilled and too many atrocities were committed.

But this is not what Putin aims. He simply wants to block the Qatar natural gas pipeline and to maintain an Alewite state on the Mediterranean cost with a large Russian military presence. The first part will leave Russia and Gazprom as the only supplier of natural gas to Europe and salvage Russian economy. The second will be the first and critical step towards his dream of turning Russia into a naval power again.

And the other beneficiary of blocking the Qatar pipeline will be Iran. Hence Russia is smack in the middle of the Sunni-Shia nexus.

As I said previously, Putin is no Yeltsin and trying to corner him while "misunderestimating" his moves was both risky and stupid.



Read this BBC piece in case you think I exaggerate.
Judging from the reactions of media commentators, Mr Putin appears to have won on points overall, and not only in the "duel of speeches", as Germany's Der Spiegel website described it.

Many point out that he skilfully kept the world's focus on the Syria conflict, despite Mr Obama's condemnation of Russia's intervention in eastern Ukraine on the side of pro-Russian rebels.
So Russia no longer looked diplomatically isolated, despite the Western sanctions imposed for its pro-rebel activities in Ukraine.

In photo opportunities Mr Putin smiled more than Mr Obama - though some saw Mr Putin's expression as a satisfied smirk.

The Russia leader had stolen the spotlight at the United Nations, according to the AFP news agency, with a "swaggering push on the Syria crisis".

And the Associated Press said the meeting "highlighted Putin's ability to command attention and shift it away" from Ukraine.
I can tell you that he did win and not on points.

I am sure Bill Kristol will beg to differ.

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