TROIKA REPORT: Pope Francis may help defuse Russia-West dialoge

RBTH presents its weekly analytical program TROIKA REPORT, featuring a look at three of the most high-profile recent developments in international affairs.

1. Engaging the West

Can Moscow’s diplomatic overtures enlarge the anti-ISIS coalition?

Mahmoud Abbas (left to right), Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin attend a ceremony to open the Moscow Grand Mosque in Moscow, Sept. 23, 2015. Source: Reuters

A flurry of Moscow-driven diplomatic activities focused on the Syrian crisis this week has placed Russia at the heart of the so far disconcerted efforts to find a settlement in this part of the Middle East.

Just days after the resumption of the dialogue between the United States and Russia on resolving the conflict in Syria, so far limited to the re-activated direct hot line between the Pentagon and Russia’s Ministry of Defense, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The positive comments made by Netanyahu after meeting Putin, which resulted, in particular, in the establishment of close coordination between the military leaders of the two countries, hint that Moscow must have provided guarantees that the hardware it has sent to the Syrian army will not end up in the hands of Lebanon’s Hezbollah Islamist militant group.

Putin’s statement that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s army is in no shape to open a “second front” against the Jewish state, since it is more concerned on preserving Syrian statehood as such, can be read as a signal of Moscow’s acceptance of Israel’s security concerns. On top of this, according to Al Jazeera sources, Israel has made it clear “that they don't see Russia as a threat” in Syria.

Could these positive corrections in the dialogue between major actors in the Middle East quagmire enable Russia to take a lead role in resolving the conflict in Syria? Could it be a game-changer? Speaking to Troika Report, Andrei Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, dismissed the idea, while adding:

“…but definitely there is potential for a very different approach to the Syrian situation. On top of the international coalition headed by the United States that is fighting ISIS, there is another coalition in the making which would include Russia, Iran, potentially Iraq, maybe some other countries as well. It changes the landscape. It opens new opportunities. But it might also lead to additional risks.”  

— There are plenty of allegations that the continuous technical assistance to Bashar al-Assad regime, and the current modernization of a military base in Latakia could lead to Russian “boots on the ground.” Some claim that Russia is heading for a repetition of its involvement in Afghanistan in the late 1970s. What is your take on that?

“First of all, in terms of legitimacy, it depends on whether you recognize the regime in Damascus. If you consider the regime legitimate, then any request to any foreign country from Damascus for military assistance is also legitimate since it is exercising its sovereign right. And vice versa. I am sure that Russia will demonstrate restraint. Its engagement will be very fine-tuned. I hope there will be no escalation of Russian military involvement in the Syrian crisis.”

— Could the decision of the White House to restart cooperation with Kremlin on the Syrian dossier be interpreted as a major diplomatic victory for Russia?

“I think it is too early to judge. But if Putin meets Obama on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York, it would be an important step forward. It would not be a concession on the part of the United States. It would mean that both sides understand that they have many common interests and they should resume the dialogue.

“However, it does not mean that the disagreements on the Ukrainian crisis are going to disappear. However, even amid sharp contradictions, both sides cooperated on pushing forward the Iranian nuclear deal.”

 The Kremlin is attempting to convince the United States that for the time being the decision on the fate of Assad’s regime should be postponed until later on. But if this tactic fails, could we see some unilateral action by Moscow? Alexander Konovalov, president of the Institute for Strategic Assessments, strongly warns against such an arrogant move. Here is his comment for Troika Report:

“If Russia tried to get engaged in this conflict without close and direct consultations, and cooperation with the U.S.-led alliance, it would be a big mistake.

“There are many parties engaged in the conflict, with different interests. It is necessary to be extremely cautious when taking decisions on actions on the ground.”

Yet changes are in the air. What new factors could be affecting the correction in U.S. foreign policy in respect to the civil war in Syria and the fight against ISIS? Ivan Konovalov, director of the Center for Strategic Trend Studies in Moscow, provided this comment for Troika Report:

“For the last few years, the situation on the ground in Syria has been in a stalemate for all the warring parties. The surge of Russian military-technical assistance tilts the balance in favor of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Assad is completely unacceptable for the United States and its allies, while Russia is convinced that he is the only force capable of cementing resistance to the advancing radical Islamists.”

Due to the unbridgeable differences between Washington and Moscow in their approach to the future of Bashar al-Assad, the incorporation of Russia into the existing anti-ISIS alliance is extremely unlikely, says Konovalov. He is more inclined to forecast that a new coalition to fight ISIS will soon be formally announced – a group that already consists of Russia, Iran, and Syria. There will then be the possibility of some kind of interaction between the two coalitions, says Ivan Konovalov.

Furthermore, the U.S. is apparently quietly revising its current strategy, having realized that the training and arming of the Syrian “moderate” opposition has been nothing short of a fiasco. The emphasis seems to be shifting toward the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds – an adjustment that has already placed Washington’s NATO ally, Turkey, in an awkward position because of the separatist sentiments of the Kurdish community in Turkey itself.

In any case, the diplomatic strategies applied by the regional and extra-regional players in the Middle East appear to be in flux. Whether Moscow’s fresh calls to engage the West in cooperative joint action will be heeded is another question, but the situation is being watched closely in many places, especially in the Middle East.


2. Globally speaking

Could Pope Francis help defuse Russia-West tensions?

Pope Francis dispenses incense while celebrating Mass, Washington, Sept. 23, 2015. Source: Reuters

The landmark visit by Pope Francis to Cuba followed by his tour of the United States and address to the UN General Assembly may have a direct bearing on the current tug of war between Russia and the West.

At a time when relations between the two sides, crippled by distrust, have reached their lowest point in decades, there is a desperate need for an honest broker. This is where the pontiff can step in, calling on warring parties around the world to bury the hatchet of violence, distrust and animosity.

The Pope’s credentials as a world leader with a special status were confirmed by the fact that U.S. President Barack Obama met him on the tarmac of the Andrews Air Force Base, although U.S. presidents rarely welcome any foreign dignitaries at the airport.

While the welcome afforded to the Argentine-born pontiff could have been aimed at pleasing the United States’ devout Hispanic community, which is steadily growing in numbers and political weight and the support of which is crucial during the ongoing U.S. presidential pre-election campaign, the more likely reason is the more assertive role being played by Pope Francis in global affairs.

This was proved by the pontiff’s visit to Cuba, the bone of contention between the Cold War rivals that provoked the Missile Crisis of 1962. Addressing thousands and thousands of the faithful in Havana, Pope Francis appealed for national unity of all the Cubans, irrespective of their political leaning and past grievances, sending a clear signal to Miami-based immigrants.

Judging by the most cordial welcome the Pope received from Cubans, who are basically atheist and loyal to the Communist ideology, this represents a formidable success for the Holy See that can be capitalized on during the visit to the United States.

This assessment and forecast is supported by Father Yanes Sever, a priest from the Moscow-based Society of Jesus, who spoke to Troika Report:

“Pope Francis always tries to open channels and not close them. He has helped the rapprochement in the relationship between Cuba and the United States. What is interesting is what his message would be in the United States. They are having an election next year, and each party would want him to be on their side. But he is not a person who will pick one side or another. The Pope will follow his own course.”

As a symbolic gesture of reconciliation, the Pope shook hands with Fidel Castro and held a 40-minute informal meeting with the revolutionary who shook the Western hemisphere by seizing power in 1959 and establishing Communist rule in Cuba. While visiting the “Island of Freedom,” the nickname often given to Cuba, Francis also used this extraordinary platform to persuade the Colombian government and the Marxist-Leninist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to conclude their negotiations, currently being held in Havana, sign an agreement facilitating the rehabilitation of the guerrillas, and thus put an end to South America's longest-running conflict.

Earlier, in June this year, Pope Francis urged Bosnians to preserve the still shaky ethnic and religious harmony in a composite country devastated by the 1992-1995 war which pitted Bosnia's Croats, Serbs and Bosniak Muslims against each other. The painfully brokered peace accord, emphasized the spiritual leader of the world’s Catholics, showed that ”even the deepest wounds can be healed by purifying memories and firmly anchoring hopes in the future.”

In June, when Western sanctions against Russia were prolonged, hurting its economy and tarnishing its image, Pope Francis had an hour-long meeting with President Vladimir Putin at which they discussed the crisis in Ukraine, sending the message that the Vatican does not take sides.

In total, Pope Francis has enhanced his reputation of a peace broker with the moral authority to compel opponents to engage in dialogue rather than war.

How justified is this assessment of the foreign policy of the Holy See and of Pope Francis, which comes at a time of grave challenges to global order? Is it really as assertive as it appears?

Father Igor Chabanov, secretary of the Apostolic Nuncio to the Russian Federation, shared his views on the Pope’s visit to Cuba with Troika Report:

“The Pope’s visit to Cuba, followed by his visit to the U.S. and the address to the UN General Assembly, are being watched with keen interest in Russia, and there is good reason for that.

“In this respect, we may recall how exactly two years ago Pope Francis addressed President Putin with a letter dedicated to the subject of peace in the world, and in Syria in particular. He insisted that the leaders of the main powers must ‘overcome the conflicting positions and lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution,’ calling this “the moral duty of the governments.”

Perhaps the Pope considers President Putin not only as the leader of one of the global powers, but also as a figure of moral principles, for at the end of his letter, unusually for diplomatic correspondence, the Pope asked Putin to pray for him.

One may say that the Pope may be seen as a potential honest broker by some in Russia. And Mr. Putin who is building his policy on the conservative values may become his natural counterpart in the strife for peace.”

Father Igor Chabanov, asked by Troika whether the Vatican can mediate in any way in the Ukrainian crisis, pointed to the need to improve relations between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches, which may facilitate reconciliation.

All in all, the message of the Gospel and the personal appeals of Pope Francis resonate with the aspirations of war-torn and conflict-burdened nations. In this respect, the Holy See can be seen as a credible and robust mediator in conflict resolution and cooperation with major international actors, including Russia.


3. Going Eastward

Moscow working to seal its Central Asian backyard

Military officers seen during the Russian strategic military exercises "Center 2015" at the Donguz firing range. Source: Mikhail Metzel/TASS

In the wake of a series of military training exercises this summer with ex-Soviet republics in Central Asia, Russia has staged by far the largest maneuvers this year, bringing on board this time Kazakhstan as a member state of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

While media observers suggested the drills were intended as a demonstration of muscle-flexing and a signal of defiance toward the West and NATO in particular, others see it as an attempt to seal its southern backyard off from the threat of terrorism.

To prove this point, the official scenario of the joint military exercises, codenamed Centre 2015, was defined as fighting paramilitary units of various extremists in Central Asia.

This year, Russia plans to end up with more than 4,000 military drills. Yet Centre 2015 is outstanding by any yardstick. The maneuvers took place on 20 training grounds, and involved 95,000 servicemen, some 7,000 military vehicles, 170 jets, and 20 vessels.

The official aim of Centre 2015 was described as “localizing an armed conflict and eliminating illegal armed formations in the Central Asian region.” The Kazakh troops were involved within the CSTO’s legal framework.

In fact, Centre 2015 may have been the largest but it was not the only significant drill. The Russian navy was recently engaged in exercises with China in the Sea of Japan. There were also combined sorties by air force squadrons of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Rapid Reaction force of the CSTO staged its own “war games.”

In relation to the Centre 2015 maneuvers, there was no shortage of assumptions bandied about that Russia and the Central Asian republics were training because they are scared stiff of the eastward spread of the Islamic State (ISIS) radical militant group, engulfing Afghanistan.

A more daring hype amounted to suggestions that Russia and its allies have Syria on their mind. This does not look altogether exotic and far-fetched, given the recent rumors that Damascus is ready to beg Moscow for direct military assistance, involving sending troops to the war-torn country, which is losing ground to ISIS.

What is it all about? Do these maneuvers have the ambitious goal of eventually building new security architecture in the Eurasian region? Or is it just a show of force? Dmitry Polikanov, a member of the board of the Center for Policy Studies in Russia, a Moscow-based independent think tank, provided this comment to Troika Report:

“The maneuvers actually demonstrate that Russia is ready to play a more active role in maintaining Eurasian and Asian security. This is emphasized by military units from Kazakhstan participating in the drills. Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) have been reiterating lately that they are ready to face the threat of Islamic extremism and oppose Islamic State (ISIS) in particular.”

— What kind of a threat is Islamic State for the moment for Central Asia?

“They have to take into account the expansion of Islamic State. We may also witness soon the emergence of ISIS militants in Central Asia. That is the reason why the scenario of the military exercises was focused on the ‘localization’ of the conflict. The basic idea was that Russian and Kazakhstani units together are trying to prevent the escalation of an international conflict. This is directly related to the uncertainty over the developments in Afghanistan and some other parts of Asia.”

— There are plenty of rumors that the Centre 2015 maneuvers were in fact training exercises for a possible military operation not so much in Central Asia but in Syria. What’s your take on these allegations?

“I would say that it is too early for Russia’s military involvement in Syria… Any involvement in Syria would mean a radical change of Russia’s policy. I do not think the Russian leadership is ready for such a radical change.”

— What about the CSTO? Is it a one man show? Many believe that other nations are still making a meager contribution, while the main burden is being shouldered by Russia. Is this changing or not?

“The burden is still on the shoulders of Russia. But such exercises are important to ensure that there is interaction between Russian units and the units of other Central Asian republics. Here the situation is not very stable; so much is at stake to have operational coordination between the CSTO member-states.”

Meanwhile, China is closely watching all the military activities in the region. The comment on the Centre 2015 drills by the Xinhua News Agency, which is a ministry-level department subordinate to the central government, quotes experts of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

A recent report concluded that the gradual deterioration of the security environment inside Afghanistan and around it endangers stability in Central Asia. Beijing views the CSTO doing training and shooting through this prism, noting that the region is challenged by terrorism, extremism, drug trafficking, transnational crime, and illegal migration.

In this context, Moscow could count on cooperation with Beijing to counter the spillover of violence from Afghanistan, should Islamic or any extremist groupings start a “crusade” towards Central Asia. Since this region is viewed by Russia and China as their strategic backyard, the CSTO could become a crisis management tool. Whether or not it is apt for handling such a responsibility remains to be seen.

The opinion of the writers may not necessarily reflect the position of RBTH or its staff.

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