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Putin Gambit Gets Personal as New Clout Hinges on Assad

Vladimir Putin won a reprieve from U.S. missile attacks for his ally Bashar al-Assad. Now he has to trust a man few others do and show he can bring Assad to heel.

While the U.S. has guardedly endorsed Putin’s proposal to have Syria cede its entire chemical-weapons cache, the Russian leader now needs to prove skeptics wrong and persuade Assad to fully comply, said analysts from Moscow to London.

“Putin is taking a considerable personal risk with all this,” Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said by e-mail yesterday. “It’s not so much about Russia’s influence with Damascus as it is about rational thinking and Putin thinks Assad is rational.”

Putin is trying to bring to the table a man that Secretary of State John Kerry labeled a murderer and to show that his desire to re-establish Russia as a global diplomatic player extends beyond rhetoric and diplomatic gamesmanship.

Putin contested U.S. claims that Assad’s forces carried out an Aug. 21 chemical attack that killed more than 1,400 people, instead suggesting in a New York Times opinion article last night that rebel groups were to blame. Framing his article as an appeal to the American public, Putin insisted that a strike on Syria without United Nations approval would be illegal and urged the U.S. to embrace his country’s initiative.

Four Steps

Russia delivered its proposal to the U.S. yesterday, a Russian Foreign Ministry official said, declining to be identified because the matter is confidential. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov started two days of talks with Kerry in Geneva today.

Russia’s four-stage proposal foresees Syria signing up to the Chemical Weapons Convention, then disclosing its chemical production and storage sites, followed by inviting in UN inspectors and then working out a mechanism for moving and destroying the stockpiles, said Alexei Pushkov, head of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee.

Syria today submitted to the United Nations a document to begin the process of joining the Chemical Weapons Convention, a UN spokesman, Farhan Haq, told reporters. Syria would start providing information on its chemical weapons about a month after it signs the accord, Assad said in an interview broadcast today by Russia’s state Rossiya 24 news channel.

‘Two-Way Street’

The Syrian leader also set what may be unacceptable conditions for the U.S. in negotiating a chemical-weapons deal, saying it must be a “two-way street” in which the Obama administration drops military threats and stops arming rebels.

“Russia has the most important role in this process, because we don’t have either trust or connection with the U.S.,” he said. “Russia is the only country that can carry out this mission.”

Russia and Syria, now its only Arab ally, have had close ties since Assad’s father came to power in a bloodless coup in 1970. Russia maintains its only military base outside the former Soviet Union at Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartus.

At the same time, Russian officials have privately complained about not having enough leverage over Assad to influence his behavior, according to a research paper published by the Carnegie Moscow Center in February. While Russia has supplied arms to Syria and printed banknotes for its central bank throughout the conflict, it hasn’t been able to convince Assad to loosen his grip on power to help end the civil war, the policy group said.

Lose Prestige

“If Putin’s move only allows Syria to play for time, he will lose prestige,” Volker Perthes, head of the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs, which advises Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, said by e-mail. It would be a “big boost” to Putin and Russia if he manages to both avert a U.S. strike an persuade Assad’s people to negotiate a transition, Perthes said.

The details of Putin’s proposal haven’t been made public so it’s not clear how Putin expects to overcome the logistical challenges of locating all of Syria’s hidden and constantly moving arsenal in the middle of a war that has raged for 2 1/2 years and left more than 100,000 people dead.

If any country can do it, though, it’s Russia, which has the largest stockpile of chemical weapons and therefore the most experience in managing them, said Ian Anthony, director of the Program on Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-proliferation at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

‘Rapid Follow-Up’

“Russia would be well-positioned to take the lead in organizing a rapid follow-up to implement the initiative,” Anthony said on SIPRI’s website. “It has extensive experience in implementing chemical-weapon disarmament projects.”

Leonid Ivashov, a former head of the Russian General Staff’s international cooperation department who worked on Russia’s own disarmament program in the 1990s, said that locating and destroying Assad’s entire arsenal of chemical weapons is “absolutely possible,” though the endeavor may take years if not decades and won’t be able to start until a cease-fire is brokered.

One option is to transfer the entire cache to Russia, which has the biggest capability to neutralize it, Ivashov, who now runs the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, said by phone from Moscow yesterday.

“Another option is to build a plant in Syria, which is a difficult and complicated process,” Ivashov said. “But it’s impossible to implement such a plan without stabilizing the situation in the country first and it’s impossible to have international control over arms without stopping the war.”

Assad’s Shield

Just as Syria is Russia’s only ally in a region that pumps about a third of the world’s oil, Assad must also consider whether he can afford to defy a man who has shielded him from action by the UN Security Council. His only other sponsor, Iran, is being choked by sanctions that cut it off from much of the global financial system and has recently elected a new president trying to improve relations with the West.

“If Assad thinks Putin can guarantee his long-term survival then he may make some concessions,” Spyros Economides, a senior lecturer in international relations at the London School of Economics, said by phone. “It will mean a lot in the Middle East and internationally for Russia if Putin succeeds and it will show the world that the U.S. is less powerful.”

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