On September 28 as part of a massive image campaign, Russian President Vladimir Putin will appear before the United Nations General Assembly for the first time in ten years. The speech that follows will be an attempt to save Russia’s international credibility that has been nosediving since Russia annexed Crimea and started backing separatists in eastern Ukraine. It is expected to present a Russian-led plan for ending Syria’s civil war, and in return for that solution push for the lifting of international sanctions on Russia.
Putin is making this move now for two reasons: He wants an out from his current entanglement in Ukraine and the Syria crisis is providing an excellent way for Russia to do that.
Putin is an improviser, not a master strategist. After months of walking himself into a corner by doubling down on Russia’s combat and arms support for dependent, but unreliable, separatists in eastern Ukraine, he has finally decided he wants a change. Western sanctions have stung, and together with low oil prices, have sunk the Russian economy into recession while making it harder for giant state-owned corporations, expected to pick up financial slack for the state, to balance their debt. Long term those factors put Putin’s hold over Russia at risk. Syria provides a potential out from the current situation.
Syria has long been fertile ground for Putin’s image abroad. His Sept. 2013 op-ed in the New York Times made President Barack Obama back off on airstrikes in Syria. Prior to the Ukraine-crisis, Putin was even nominated for a Noble Peace Prize for his role in negotiating with Assad. The Syria issue has projected a different Putin than the one the West sees in Ukraine, a Putin who urges caution and tries to moderate the fallout from other countries’ military adventures.
Putin’s speech will come at a time when the Syria issue has never had more importance to the bulk of countries sanctioning Russia. European Union member states have been overwhelmed by the flow of predominantly Syrian refugees. They have no plan for what to do with all of the refugees already in the EU, no plan for how to keep more out, and most definitely no plan for how to end the fighting in Syria. But Putin has a plan and it is already in operation.
This month Putin’s war machine, fresh from its demonstration in Ukraine, has been clicking into place in Syria. Currently 2,000 Russian soldiers are estimated to be in Syria along with more than two dozen military aircraft. Russian soldiers already on the ground have been posting selfies to social media just as they have previously done in Ukraine. According to an anonymous Reuters’ source, they are already participating in active combat operations.
Russia’s military build up in Syria has seen the U.S. racing to catch up. In а Senate hearing Gen. Lloyd Austin was forced to admit a $500 million plan to train 5,400 Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) had lost all but five of its fighters. He then made it sound as if American forces were on the ground in northern Syria before admitting later in the day that was not true. Meanwhile Putin’s message to Washington has been “join our operation or get left behind as it goes forward without you.” Putin has set up a meeting with President Barack Obama on the sidelines of his UN speech on Monday to push the US to sign up with the Russia-led coalition. With Russian media expecting Russian airstrikes to begin in Syria around the same time there will be intense pressure on Obama to seem part of the plan rather than cut out.
At the same time Russia is putting pressure on the separatists it backs in Ukraine to keep the country quiet and out of the news, and at least make it seem like it is on its way to a permanent solution. Since September 1 there has been an actual ceasefire in eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile Russian state-controlled media has shifted gears, coverage of Ukraine has fallen in priority and volume while Syria coverage has spiked, with star war reporters heading to Syria instead of Ukraine. That coverage usually indicates the direction Putin is about to move in.
The solution Putin is ultimately trying to offer at the UN is one where Russia takes the lead, putting boots on the ground where democratically accountable governments are unable to do so. After the Iraq War it is just the sort of operation the U.S. has neither the international nor domestic support to lead. Russia is offering other countries to join in a la carte, but in a Russia-led operation already in motion with no room for debate or change the operation itself. You can’t work with Russia that closely militarily without, as the Russians say, making it “handshakeable" again, and the eventual repealing of international sanctions that restored diplomatic credibility requires.
It is a realist trade, Ukraine for Syria, with the same machine in place but potentially in line with the interests of the countries that have previously opposed it. It’s a plan that may well work.