The presumptions have been gloomy, verging on alarmist, as they so often are when the talk is of Russia. Satellite images suggest that Moscow has begun a military build-up in Syria, and this, according to a broad Western consensus, can only mean one thing: preparation for a more active – and necessarily more anti-Western – engagement in a country where Russia clings to its last Soviet-era foothold in the region.
The equipment transferred in recent weeks includes fighter jets, attack helicopters and tanks, and there is reported to be construction work on two new military bases. Some 200 Russian marines may have arrived already, with housing being prepared for 10 times that number. Work is going on around the airport to the south of the Mediterranean port of Latakia, but also at sites to the north.
Such activity certainly raises questions. If the Kremlin’s purpose is not to keep its debilitated ally, Bashar al-Assad, in power – by force of arms, if necessary – then what is it?
Next Monday may offer some answers. Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, is to address the UN General Assembly for the first time in a decade. Nor will he be the only major national leader to address the 70th anniversary session that day. The Presidents of the United States, China, Iran and France are all scheduled to speak. The line-up promises intriguing theatre, and perhaps real geopolitical power play as well.
With the US Congress exercised about China’s growing military might, the ink on the Iran nuclear deal barely dry, and the French suspect in US eyes for wanting to soften sanctions against Russia, there is plenty to disagree about. And this is even without the suspicions of what Moscow might be up to in Syria and the continuing discord over Crimea and Ukraine.
It is easy, and fashionable, to denounce the UN as an impotent talking shop, and the General Assembly as just another chance for national leaders to show off for the television audience back home. But that is to take too narrow and too Western a view. The US and the UK may have ignored the UN (on Kosovo), overridden it (on Iraq) or stretched the mandate it had obtained (Libya), but there remains a big constituency that treats the United Nations with particular respect. Russia – along with a host of less powerful states – is one.
So while Putin’s speech on Monday may consist of no more than a stream of platitudes tailored to the anniversary, it could be much more significant than this. It is, after all, 10 years since the Russian President last put in a personal appearance at the General Assembly, so maybe he has something interesting to say. Let’s hazard how he might use his time in the global media glare.
Almost regardless of anything else he decides to say, Putin’s central objective will be to demonstrate that Russia is not isolated. If you have viewed Russia only from Europe in the past 18 months, your impression will be of a country largely cut off from the economic mainstream by sanctions and a leader excluded from the political elite.
If you view Russia from almost anywhere else, especially now, the landscape looks somewhat different – and this is not primarily a result of Putin’s overtures to China, which have been largely for a Western audience and enjoyed distinctly mixed success. In so far as it has been able – which is quite far – Moscow has managed to park Ukraine and its fallout in a “regional” box, while continuing to behave as a global player.
The US Secretary of State’s meeting with Putin in May, in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, marked the effective end of Russia’s post-Ukraine quarantine, although this was stated nowhere at the time. Channels were discreetly reopened.
This may be one reason why the US response to Russia’s military transfers to Syria has seemed unusually measured. John Kerry has said that the build-up appears, at least for the time being, to be defensive, not offensive – limited to protecting Russia’s existing interests, primarily its naval facility in Tartous. There has been contact between the US and Russian defence ministers, and discussions between the military top brass have been mooted.
Having presented Russia as once again a global player – albeit one with much diminished military power – Putin could then take one of two quite different avenues. One would be a reprise of his angry list of grievances against Nato and the West, which he first presented at Munich in 2007 and has reappeared as a theme since the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
But there has also been speculation that Putin could essentially reverse track and present the outline of a new “grand bargain”. This might link some level of co-operation against Islamic State in Syria; joint East-West guarantees for a political settlement in Ukraine; and new efforts to devise a post-cold war security system for Europe.
Such proposals would doubtless be received with suspicion; others – especially in east and central Europe, and Ukraine – would urge their immediate rejection. But those who see only Moscow’s hand behind the fighting in Ukraine must also acknowledge that the ceasefire in the east is largely holding, and that, slowly and imperfectly, the Minsk II agreement is being honoured. With oil prices low and Russia’s economy faltering, Putin could be looking for a way to accept the long-term reality that the price of Crimea is a completely new relationship between Russia and Ukraine.
Russian diplomacy is not known for its finesse, and Russian presidents, like all leaders, play to their home gallery even on big international occasions. But if, amid the inevitable bluster at the UN on Monday, Putin offers his own version of Barack Obama’s six-year old “reset”, the West needs to resist both instant dismissal and triumphalism and give it a serious look.