Analysis: To fix Syria and Ukraine, Obama and Putin need to go on a 'first date'

Many commentators worry that meeting Putin makes Obama look weak or needy.

September 28, 2015 14:02
Obama and Putin

Obama and Putin. (photo credit: REUTERS,JPOST STAFF)

As President Obama prepares to sit down with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, many commentators ridicule the idea and worry that meeting Putin makes Obama look weak or needy.

Obama should ignore these naysayers, however, and ask himself one basic question: Would the United States benefit from diplomatic engagement from Russia?

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Looked at from this perspective, it’s obvious that the answer is yes. In a number of global trouble spots, including Syria, Ukraine and others, the two powers’ interests potentially overlap in a number of ways. The reality is that in the last decade, from Iraq to Libya and Syria to Ukraine, the United States has consistently misjudged its ability to control and manage events on its own. It’s now time for Obama to bite the bullet, meet Putin, and see if any concrete scope for furthering American national interests via engagement with Russia exists.

On Syria, the United States’ latest strategy - to “train and equip” so-called moderate rebels - is a clear failure. Barely any rebels have actually been trained, and the first batch concluded their training by crossing into Syria from Turkey and immediately surrendering their American-supplied arms and equipment directly to al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria.

Moreover, Moscow has indicated it wants to cooperate with Washington in the fight against Islamic State. Secretary of State John Kerry already stated that Islamic State is the greatest national security threat to the United States, while Russia also genuinely fears the terrorist group. Thousands of Russian citizens from Chechnya and the North Caucasus are now fighting with extremists in Syria, and Russia fears the jihadist threat could spread northwards into Central Asia or even Russia itself.

With the Russian military pouring troops and equipment into Syria, the Pentagon has wisely begun coordinating with their Russian counterparts on avoiding unforeseen incidents between the two sides’ militaries in Syria. As a next step, Obama and Putin should explore whether any ground exists for a broader solution to the Syrian war that both Russia and the United States could support.

On the surface, the two sides’ positions on the future of Syrian President Bashar Assad preclude further cooperation in Syria. Obama states Assad must go, while Putin refuses entreaties to end his support for the Syrian leader. The two sides’ views on Assad are not necessarily irreconcilable, though. Behind the scenes, European diplomats have said that “the Russians say they are not married to Assad” and that they are “looking for true alternatives to Assad.”

Rather than continue with its absolutist position regarding Assad’s future, the United States should feel Putin out about these alternatives. One possibility - which Putin is reportedly open to - involves sidelining Assad, leaving him powerless even though he would remain as interim head of state. Another option could see Assad replaced by a “strongman” capable of continuing the fight against the jihadist groups. Such a person would need to be acceptable to both Assad’s fellow Alawite allies as well as more secular Syrians of all stripes - both of whom oppose an Islamic State-style jihadist government. Once Assad is gone, some type of more permanent solution may be possible. It doesn’t hurt the United States to begin considering these types of options to stop the slaughter in Syria, but this can only occur if Obama and Putin are on speaking terms.

It’s also time for the United States to reengage directly with Russia on the Ukraine crisis. A number of subtle signs indicating a moderation of Russia’s position on Ukraine have appeared in the last month, and these signs are worth exploring further.

First, the Russians recently engineered a change in the separatist leadership. The hawkish head of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic’s (DPR) Parliament who has been resistant to Minsk II - a February cease-fire negotiated by Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany - was replaced by a less hawkish figure more susceptible to control from Moscow. The day of the change, the President of the DPR bowed to reality and publicly supported Minsk II, reflecting Moscow’s apparent success in bringing the rebel leadership under greater control and forcing them to observe the accord.

The second sign came from Putin himself. During a visit to Crimea where he hosted Italian politician Silvio Berlusconi, a pedestrian approached Putin and asked him if Russia would annex the separatist regions as Moscow did Crimea. Putin replied that the only method for ending the crisis was for the rebel regions to observe the Minsk II deal. Under Minsk II, the rebel regions would be gradually reintegrated into Ukraine, albeit with a “special status” allowing them greater autonomy from Kiev.

Putin did not say so explicitly, but many observers believe that this was a public signal to the West of Russian readiness to bring an end to the conflict. While Putin’s public commitment to the cease-fire may only represent a tactical rather than a strategic change, as with Syria, Obama would benefit from speaking directly with Putin to try to suss out exactly what the Russian President is up to in Ukraine.

Finally, Obama would also benefit from understanding Putin’s position on a number of other key American interests. One subject is the climate conference planned for Paris in December. Is there scope for US-Russian cooperation on climate change?

Another issue is the future of the nuclear agreement with Iran - a prime example of successful American-Russian cooperation and a key part of Obama’s legacy. Given that the nuclear fuel for Iran’s reactors at Bushehr will be produced in Russia and the spent fuel returned to Russia, Obama would be wise to emphasize to Putin in person the importance of continuing to strictly monitor Iran’s compliance with the deal.

While conservatives worry that Putin seeks to trade Russian cooperation on Syria in exchange for allowing Russia a free hand in Ukraine, nothing requires Obama to accept this scenario. Indeed, Obama can also use a meeting with Putin to firmly emphasize that the United States sees no linkage between Syria and Ukraine. Meeting Putin is akin to a get-to-know-you first date - and need not be a long-term commitment or endorsement of the Kremlin’s word view.

As President Obama recently said after the successful conclusion to the Iran deal, “you don’t negotiate deals with your friends. You negotiate them with your enemies.” By that metric, the president is right to sit down with Putin and talk.

Josh Cohen is a former USAID project officer involved in managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union. He contributes to a number of foreign policy-focused media outlets and tweets at @jkc_in_dc.

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