The US President Barack Obama sprang a New Year surprise on his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin by telephoning him Wednesday night. It was a double surprise since the Russian New Year Holiday Week is ending on Thursday, January 14, and Obama rarely makes such gestures; and, secondly, the call signified a virtual U-turn just a day after the US president had made some unfriendly remarks about the Kremlin’s policies and caricatured Russia as undermining the international system.

Kremlin described the Putin-Obama conversation as frank and constructive

The Kremlin readout and the White House readout both make it clear that the two presidents held a detailed discussion on the situation in Ukraine and the Middle East tensions (Syrian conflict and Saudi-Iran rift) and North Korea’s dangerous nuclear brinkmanship. It was indeed a substantial phone conversation, signifying a Russian-American constructive engagement.

The Kremlin readout is an unusually detailed one, conveying a high degree of satisfaction, while the White House readout underscored that Obama’s intention was to discuss with Putin the “full implementation” of the Minsk agreement on Ukraine “by all parties”, to coordinate on the upcoming UN-sponsored roadmap on Syrian transition, and to get Russia on board a unified big-power stance to pressure North Korea.

According to the Kremlin’s version, Putin stressed the “need for Kiev’s full and rigorous observance of the Minsk Agreements”, in particular regarding the constitutional amendments that enable local elections to be held in the breakaway regions of Donbass. The White House maintained that on his part, Obama stressed that “the key next step” is about the two sides in Ukraine reaching agreement on the modalities of holding elections in the breakaway regions.

The difference over the implementation of the Minsk agreement appears to have narrowed down to a matter of the relative stress the two big powers put on what are indeed two inter-related aspects of the current situation, namely, the constitutional reform and the holding of local elections under the new legislation.

On Syria, Putin brought up “the need to create a broad coalition to fight the Islamic State and other extremist organizations” and on the criticality of avoiding “double standards” in naming the irreconcilable rebel groups that will be kept out of the purview of the peace talks. Interestingly, there was a discussion on military-to-military contacts between the US and Russia “aimed at consolidating efforts” to fight extremist groups in the Middle East.

The two presidents have called for de-escalation of the Saudi-Iran rift. They obviously share the concern that tensions may result in flashpoint at some point. If the Saudi hope was that Washington will be obliged to take sides in the rift, things are moving altogether in a different way. (The ease with which Washington and Tehran defused a potentially ugly stand-off over the detention of 10 American sailors by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards this week suggests a deepening US-Iranian engagement, which cannot be lost on Riyadh.)

On North Korea, notwithstanding the cordial ties between Russia and that country, Moscow is backing Washington’s tough approach as regards meting out a “harsh international response” (Kremlin’s words) to the reported testing of a hydrogen bomb by Pyongyang. Russia, of course, disfavours any precipitate military actions by the US but has reason to feel gratified that the Obama administration has taken the issue to the UN Security Council and is not acting as a lone ranger.

What does Obama hope to convey through this rare gesture of phoning up Putin amidst the Russian New Year festivities? Indeed, he felt it prudent on second thoughts not to cause annoyance to Moscow at a juncture when the US badly needs Russia’s cooperation to tackle a host of regional issues. In sum, he has hastened to correct the impression he put forth in his 2016 State of the Union Address on Tuesday regarding Russia as a pernicious entity in the international system. Obama signaled the following:

  • The US is no longer playing a behind-the-scenes role of inciting its proxy government in Kiev to drag its feet on the full implementation of the Minsk agreement (which is a precondition for the West to lift sanctions against Russia).
  • The US stance does “see Syria fundamentally very similarly” with Russia – to use Secretary of State John Kerry’s words – and the two countries need to work together in resolving the conflict. Kerry was, perhaps, more explicit after his talks in the Kremlin on December 20: “We (US) are not trying to do a regime change. We are not engaged in a colour revolution”.
  • The US will not take sides in the Saudi-Iran rift; nor is it seeking to take advantage of a flare-up in sectarian strife in the Muslim Middle East.
  • The US recognizes that Russia’s cooperation is necessary and useful to pursue a “strong and united international response” to the North Korean regime.

The Kremlin described the Putin-Obama conversation as “frank and constructive”. Indeed, differences exist between the US and Russia, including some serious differences such as on NATO’s expansion or the US’ missile defense system. The Russian experience so far has been that the US played a spoiler’s role in Ukraine and has not really come to terms with the stunning reality of Russian military presence in Syria. Besides, there is no let-up whatsoever discernible in the US official media propaganda against Russia, which is very often highly personalized attacks on Putin.

However, if Obama has really embarked upon a “constructive” engagement with Putin, the latter can be expected to respond positively. Putin never tires of pointing out that the New Cold War is a choice that Obama needs to make and that Russia by itself is averse to.

The coming weeks will be keenly watched as to how the US-Russia engagement actually works on the ground. Both Ukraine and Syria are immediate testing grounds. The local elections in Donbass cannot wait much longer and the ceasefire and the transition in Syria is also on the cards.

But looking ahead, the real touchstone will be any incipient signs of the easing of western sanctions against Russia. Any such signs would go a long way to confirm that Obama has had misgivings about his administration’s messianic mission to ‘punish’ Russia, which Russia will never accept, and which can only create more turbulence in a world that is already in turmoil.

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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