Russia’s double track: Escaping the impasse on Ukraine and Syria

Are there any chances that putting the Donbass crisis on the back burner and achieving a modest military success in Syria could set the stage for a more meaningful cooperation with some Western powers?


In this photo taken on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, Russian army pilot poses at a cockpit of SU-25M jet fighter at Hmeimim airbase in Syria. Source: AP Photo/Alexander Kots, Komsomolskaya Pravda

Russia’s air strikes on what it says are ISIS targets inside Syria have raised the stakes in Moscow’s policy of engaging the West in what it claims is a joint fight against Islamic terrorists. The move has also sent confusing signals over the possibility of re-engaging the West in multi-faceted cooperation, from political dialogue to trade, a partnership ruptured by the war of sanctions over Moscow’s role in the Ukraine conflict.

However, the heating up of the situation in Syria comes at the same time as the cooling of hostilities in Eastern Ukraine, which appears to be the product of concerted diplomatic efforts by the leaders of Ukraine, Germany, France and Russia to ensure the implementation of the Minsk peace accords signed back in February.

The summit of the four nations, which took place in Paris at the end of last week, was remarkably devoid of name-and-blame rhetoric, with few if any accusations targeting Moscow as the apparent protector of the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Lugansk.

The discourse of the four leaders could be summed up in two observations: “None of the articles of Minsk have been respected completely” (Angela Merkel) and the admission that some progress has been made on the military aspects of the Minsk accords (Francois Hollande).

But the key message of the Paris summit hangs on the premise that there is no sign of advancement on the crucial element of the agreement, political reform. In essence, the reforms amount to amending the Ukrainian constitution to accommodate the insistence of Donetsk and Lugansk on a special status with guarantees of the observance of human rights, e.g. the rights of ethnic – Russian –minorities.

Besides, Germany and France have said the timeline for the implementation of the Minsk agreements can be extended, which gives all sides a little more breathing space.

The link between the cautious progress on the Ukrainian front and Russia’s air strikes on targets in Syria is found in the roots of the refugee deluge flooding Europe. The sudden surge of thousands of frustrated Syrian and Iraqi citizens is a result of the crumbling security environment and law and order in these two countries, which now see one third of their territories under the control of militants from the Islamic State (ISIS) radical group.

Are there any chances that putting the Donbass crisis on the back burner and achieving a modest military success in Syria could set the stage for a more meaningful cooperation with some Western powers? This is dismissed as wishful thinking by Vladimir Bruter, an expert from the Moscow-based International Institute of Humanitarian and Political Studies, who spoke to Troika Report:

“It’s a premature even to consider such an option. The softer approach to the Syrian crisis by the continental European powers is not matched by their role in decision-making. The stance certain governments in Europe will take is conditional on the preliminary results of the Russian military operation in Syria.

“If the results are positive, it will be taken into account in Europe. If the operation does not bear fruit in the near future, and becomes a protracted campaign, there will hardly be any changes in the foreign policy of European nations, with the likelihood that it will lean towards more rigidness, yet relative rigidness.

“As for the United States, its position on the Ukrainian crisis is not likely to change at all, not in an election year, and will still amount to ‘keeping it burning’ while not inflaming it more.

“In more general terms, the Paris summit has shown that Germany, France and Russia prefer to freeze the conflict in Eastern Ukraine so that it will not have the potential to erupt into hostilities. For Germany in particular, the refugee influx is of paramount importance and pushes the Ukrainian issue to the sidelines.”

Supposedly, the discrepancy in the approach of the Anglo-Saxon nations and continental Europe is due to the way the Syrian crisis affects their interests. Might this help to precipitate the dismantling of the EU sanctions regime and abandonment of attempts to isolate Russia on the Western front, at least in Europe? Political analyst and public figure Sergei Stankevich, a senior expert with the Anatoly Sobchak Foundation, provided his view for Troika Report:

“If Russia shows readiness for a full political settlement in Syria, the West could accept her as a partner in this respect. If Russia limits its activity to military strikes, neglecting political dialogue, I’m afraid it could bring more tension in Russia-West relations.”

— If we witness, hopefully, some positive moves leading to normalization in Ukraine, meaning around the Donbass, and the weakening of ISIS in Syria as a result of Russia’s military actions, could we expect the re-emergence of areas of cooperation with the West?

“Definitely. Two problems connected with the Ukrainian crisis were resolved at the Paris meeting: The Minsk agreements will not expire and will be in force for the next year, and the elections scheduled by separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk will not take place. The elections will be held only on the basis of a special law that President Poroshenko must now press through his parliament.”

“The next year we might see a “de-escalation” of sanctions against Russia.”

Moscow’s double-track policy seems to be aimed at slowly pressing for a political settlement in Ukraine by making the central authorities in Kiev start talking directly to the insurgents in the Donbass, and concurrently setting the stage for a similar conclusion of the civil war in Syria, but with preservation of the Alawite regime in Damascus, with Bashar al-Assad at its head or not. 

However, on the Syrian track, Moscow’s offer to form a wide coalition was not welcomed. It looks like the West finds itself at the same initial stage as it was in April 2014, when the Ukrainian army launched its offensive against the self-proclaimed republics in the Donbass. At that time, the Minsk agreements and, in general, cooperation between Berlin, Paris and Moscow was still a distant prospect.

Nevertheless, the two conflicts, Eastern Ukraine and Syria, despite their apparent differences, offer Moscow’s diplomacy a chance to engage the West. Whether this gamble succeed or not is the multi-billion dollar question.

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


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