President Vladimir Putin’s phone call to British Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday needs to be taken as another sign of the gradual easing of the chill in Russia’s ties with the West following the visit by the United States Secretary of State John Kerry to Sochi recently. (See my column in Asia Times Obama’s overture to Putin has paid off.)
Putin used the re-election of Cameron as an occasion to reengage Britain politically and diplomatically. Prima facie, Putin’s gesture is flattering. It comes at a point when there is much criticism within Britain and in the United States that the UK has become a bit player in global affairs.
As Fareed Zakaria wrote in Washington Post recently with great poignancy, Cameron does convey an impression that he’s unaware that he is successor to Pitt, Gladstone, Disraeli, Lloyd George, Churchill and Thatcher by taking a manifestly “inward turn” in outlook by not choosing to speak in his first major speech after re-election about “a world of challenges” – Greece’s possible exit from the euro, the waves of migration from North Africa shores, Ukraine crisis, Islamic State and so on – and instead choosing to outline “a plan to ensure that hospitals in the UK will be better staffed on weekends.”
But Moscow begs to differ. Moscow always regarded (even in the high noon of the Cold War era or the perestroika under Mikhail Gorbachev) that there is a unique role that Britain can play in international politics and, arguably, Britain alone can play – not Germany, France or Italy – when the going gets tough in the Russian-American relationship.
The Kremlin readout on Putin’s phone call to Cameron was not quite as taciturn as it usually is and it did give away that Putin made an overture for “constructive cooperation” between Russia and Britain on the bilateral agenda and on international affairs. The readout suggests that Syria and Ukraine figured as the main topics.
Quite obviously, Russia visualizes the fight against the Islamic State [IS] to be the focal point of the crisis in Syria, while as regards Ukraine, the emphasis is on finding a “lasting settlement” which demands direct dialogue between the representatives of the Donbass region and Kiev.
In comparison, the press release from 10 Downing Street conveyed much more about Cameron’s 30-minute phone conversation with Putin. It hinted that a broad convergence on Syria exists between Moscow and London as regards ending the civil war and stopping the rising IS tide.
Thus, the two leaders agreed that their national security advisors will meet “to restart talks” on Syria. Clearly, the Russian and British intelligence will resume contacts. Putin and Cameron seemed to have gingerly sidestepped the sticking point regarding the future of the Assad regime in a political settlement.
The British version, however, harped on the “deep differences” between Moscow and London over the crisis in Ukraine with Cameron stressing that the priority at the moment is on full implementation of the Minsk agreement and on the work of the trilateral contact group (Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE) to sort out the “outstanding issues”.
In sum, Putin has picked up threads of Russia’s dialogue with Britain and both leaders underscored that business is resuming, flagging the trail blazer of the two countries’ productive cooperation within the framework of the P-5+1 grouping negotiating with Iran.
Having said that, Putin’s main purpose was to engage Cameron regarding Syria. (On Ukraine, Russia has reason to feel content with the existing Normandy format involving Germany, France and Ukraine.)
Putin’s last conversation with Cameron regarding Syria was in May 2013 when the latter visited Sochi to meet the Russian leader. Of course, the world has changed beyond recognition since then.
The focus at that time was on efforts to “help shape” a transitional government in Syria and Putin had agreed on the need to end the violence, prevent the growth of extremism and stop Syria “fragmenting”. The respective positions may not have changed much since May 2013 – UK urging that President Bashar al-Assad should step down and reiterating its support to the Syrian opposition, and Russia, on the other hand, harboring serious misgivings about the prospect of a political vacuum in the event of the Syrian government’s collapse and the rise of Islamist extremist groups.
But, in a manner of speaking, Moscow’s stance stands vindicated today. After the talks in Sochi two years ago, Putin had said Russia and Britain had “a common interest in putting and end to the violence in the country and launching a peace settlement preserving Syria as an integral and sovereign state.”
And, today, if anything, that “common interest” would only have deepened. Moscow will be expecting London to get through to the Obama administration to drive home the imperative need to reopen the track to help shape a political transition in Syria.
The dramatic surge of the IS in Syria, highlighted by the capture of Palmyra three days ago, has put a lot of pressure on the US’ strategy in Syria. The US’ regional allies are pressing for a shift in the US strategy toward greater intervention in Syria. Turkey is literally forcing Obama’s hand by claiming that the US is now inclined to agree to provide air support for the Syrian rebel militia. (The US officials maintain, however, that no decision has been made.)
Clearly, Turkey is more interested in the regime change in Syria than in the fight against the IS while Obama’s priority is that his strategy to fight the IS, which lies in tatters, needs to be salvaged.
Putin’s assessment would be that Obama is disinclined to opt for a military solution in Syria, given the extreme fragility of the country’s unity and the real danger that the IS only will be the gainer in a situation of the country fragmenting. (DebkaFile, which has links to the Israeli intelligence, reported that an IS column is heading toward Syria’s border with Jordan, where 7000 US troops from the special forces are based.)
All things considered, therefore, yesterday’s phone call to Cameron amounts to Putin conveying to Obama indirectly that Russia will be interested to cooperate with the US and Britain in practical terms in the search for a political solution and in immediate terms in stemming the IS’ surge through real time cooperation between the intelligence agencies. (The western sanctions against Russia have stalled the cooperation between spy agencies.)
Evidently, the Syrian question is assuming a new criticality, and Putin has no ego problem with Obama. Putin would expect Cameron to get through to Obama in the coming day or two to follow up yesterday’s telephone conversation.