By Callum Towler
How different things could have been? If Ukraine had joined Nato in 2008, 2014 may have been the year an Obama-led coalition – acting under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty – began gearing up for all out war against Russia following the illegal annexation of Crimea. Fast forward just a year later (a year of economic sanctions and frozen assets placed on Russia) and Putin is the new diplomatic darling; the prized jigsaw piece of Obama’s major new alliance to terminate Isis and bring about a peaceful settlement in Syria.
As Isis shift their strategy, from territorial control at home to direct assaults on Europe’s shores, so do Washington and the Kremlin; setting aside their deep mistrust and diverging national interests to synchronise military action against a greater enemy. But this alliance, fused by recent savagery on the streets of Paris and skies of Russia, is at odds with their long standing division over the legitimacy of Assad’s government.
Ever since the 2011 uprising against his authoritarian regime, the leaders have been at loggerheads at how best to avoid Syria descending into anarchy. Obama deemed Assad’s murderous regime the root cause of the conflict, arming and training rebel groups to achieve his swift removal as a priority. Putin believed this strategy – supported by all western powers – to be short-sighted, fearing a collapsed state if Assad were removed, and so offered military support against the very rebels Obama banked on. Two countervailing measures that brought Syria no closer to peace, incubating a chaos that led to the rebels splintering off, forming the Isis we know and fear today.
The proxy war played out in Ukraine and Syria is the stage at which deeper philosophical and geopolitical divisions unfold between the two great powers. Putin is very vocally opposed to US expansionism and military intervention in modern times, and privately views Russia as the counterweight to, what he calls, the US’s ‘endless desire to dominate’. His illegal land grab of Crimea sent a loud, albeit covert, message to Washington; if you can cross the line of legality, with your unsanctioned invasions, then we too can break international law to suit us. And many see his unwavering loyalty to Assad as a protection of Russia’s interests in the Middle East; not only to ward off total US control of the region, but to safeguard expensive weapons contracts with Assad’s government.
Obama’s mistrust of Putin reached a fever pitch last year when Russia, along with Ebola and Isis, were ranked together as part of US’s top three global threats. Cold war grievances still inform suspicion, on both sides, but what was left dormant came to the fore over Crimea. It represented Putin’s plain refusal to accept a US world order forced upon Russia after the Soviet Union fell; the to quell the threat of a rival European bloc emerging by leading it under a Western alliance system.
Obama was aware the defiance set a dangerous precedent; the new emerging powers of China, India and Brazil – while reliant on the US economy – may, too, stand firm against pressure to relegate their development at the whim of American expansionism. Putin realises Russia’s economic limits in mounting any realistic attempt at global leadership, but as he’s been know to say, this doesn’t mean he can’t decide who the future leader will be.
If Obama and Putin now stand together as allies, it’s little more than a forced relationship of convenience. Both, after all, are politicians, at the service of two nations proud to place national interest above all else. Isis, now wreaking havoc abroad, in savage acts of brutality and the migration crisis they are partly responsible for, have become – at least in the eyes of the public of both nations and the wider world – a very real threat that must be wiped out. In such a context, geopolitical differences blur into insignificance and a united front against terror is the only logical response.
Diplomatically it’s a win for Putin; the US have reversed their position that intervention from Moscow was doomed to fail, and now at least, diplomats privately believe Putin is the man to deliver Assad, under what the White House calls a ‘Syrian led political transition, preceded by UN mediated negotiations’. The US even now tacitly accept Russia’s control of Crimea, with subdued fighting and positive approval ratings in the region.
If Putin negotiates Assad’s removal and delivers peace to Syria, diplomatic relations with the US will peak at any all time high. Yet Putin’s allegiance to Assad makes this far from a fore gone conclusion, and mutual agreement on the future of Syria may dissipate once Isis is destroyed. Even if Putin plays by the rules, future diplomacy looks set to be problematic, as the realistic successors to Obama’s presidency all believe in a more interventionist foreign policy. Allegiance may make military sense now, but this does little to alleviate the fundamental differences embedded in this powerfully fraught relationship.