Putin Goes From G-20 Pariah to Player at Obama Turkey Talk

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Putin Goes From G-20 Pariah to Player at Obama Turkey Talk

  • Meeting on summit sideline first since Russia bombed Syria
  • Russia seeks collaboration on Syrian war, fighting terrorism

The Political Implications of the Paris Attacks

The sidelines of summits are full of talks between leaders, their ministers and aides, but the huddle between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin at the Group of 20 in Turkey on Sunday was heavy with significance.

The meeting on Syria lasting more than 30 minutes was the first since the Russian president surprised his American counterpart in September by sending in his warplanes to prop up Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian leader the U.S. wants deposed. Since then, terrorism by Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Da’esh, has taken over the global agenda and provided common purpose.

“We offered cooperation in the anti-ISIL coalition and unfortunately our partners in the U.S. initially refused,” Putin said in a briefing in the Turkish resort of Antalya on Monday. “They sent us a note that said ‘we decline your proposal.’ But life moves on and very quickly and often teaches us lessons.”

After leaving last year’s G-20 summit in Brisbane early following a berating from world leaders over stoking conflict in Ukraine, Putin arrived in Turkey with a narrative of collaboration over his vision for ending the Syrian war and tackling terrorism. His deputy foreign minister overseeing U.S. relations talked earlier on Sunday of how the atrocity in Paris can shift priorities in Washington, while another Russian official said ties with the west already have strengthened in recent days.

Russian Military

Since Putin and Obama last met, militants linked to Islamic State have bombed Ankara and Beirut and were blamed for downing a Russian passenger jet. In multiple attacks in Paris on Friday evening, they slaughtered 129 people.

Obama welcomed efforts by all nations to confront Islamic State and noted the importance of Russia’s military efforts in Syria focusing on the group, a White House official said after the meeting with Putin. Both leaders endorsed a plan for a political transition in Syria forged by diplomats in Vienna Saturday who were galvanized by the Paris attacks into reaching a deal.

Both the U.S. and Russia are increasing their military activity in Syria, raising concerns the war may morph into a proxy fight between the two powers reminiscent of Cold War conflicts. Putin’s intervention shifted the balance of power, forcing the Obama administration to reassess its strategy of supporting Syrian opposition fighters who are battling Islamic State and Assad’s military.

In their talks, Obama and Putin agreed on the need for a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition, which would be preceded by UN-mediated negotiations between the Syrian opposition and regime as well a ceasefire, according to the White House official. The international meeting in Vienna on Friday yielded agreement on a Jan. 1 deadline for talks to start between Assad and his opponents.

Assad’s Future

Still, core disagreement over the Russian support for Assad remains. While the two leaders agree on the strategic goal of combating Islamic State, they differ on the tactics, Putin’s foreign policy aide, Yuri Ushakov, told state news service RIA Novosti.

When Putin met Obama at the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September, he discussed with his U.S. counterpart whether there is a candidate to replace Assad. Obama didn’t have an answer, further bolstering the Russian leader’s resolve to back Assad, according to two people who heard Putin’s personal account of the meeting.

The rise of Islamic State has become a defining foreign policy challenge for both Putin and Obama. An Islamic State affiliate claimed it blew up a Russian airliner that crashed in Egypt on Oct. 31, killing 224. The group has beheaded Americans and continues to take territory and recruit fighters despite daily airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition.

Higher Stakes

The Paris killings have raised the stakes further.

“It seems to me that everyone now is beginning to understand that we can only fight effectively together,” Putin said at his briefing.

Speaking at the G-20 summit as the attacks overshadowed scheduled meetings on the economy and trade, European Union President Donald Tusk said Russia should focus its force more on jihadists.

A dinner of leaders in Antalya took place later on Sunday with terrorism, the Syrian war and refugees the official topics of conversation. Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, underscored the new tone with a Russian official. 

He’d left a gift bag behind after the meeting, and it was handed to the U.S. by the Turkish organizers. “Normally, we would steal this,” she laughed. She returned it “in the interests of mutual cooperation.”

— With assistance by Robert Hutton, Henry Meyer, Ryan Chilcote, and Stepan Kravchenko

(Updates with Putin comment in third paragraph.)