Why Putin Wants to Meet Obama
If you listen to the press secretaries of Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, you'll get conflicting versions of what the U.S. and Russian presidents will talk about when they meet next week at the United Nations General Assembly. For all their differences, though, the meeting need not be a waste of time.
Putin spokesman Dmitri Peskov has portrayed Obama as eager for the opportunity to discuss Syria, where Russia has been stepping up its military presence. Obama spokesman Josh Earnest, by contrast, has said that Russia's aggression in Ukraine will be high on the U.S. president's agenda. He has portrayed Putin as "more desperate," even waxing sarcastic about the Russian leader's body language during a recent meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- "less than perfect posture, unbuttoned jacket, knees spread far apart to convey a particular image."
Puerile as the public tit-for-tat may seem, both sides offer a grain of truth. Obama wouldn't be meeting with Putin purely out of politeness or condescension (the bad chemistry between the two is well known), and there's nothing new to say about Ukraine that couldn't be said on the phone. On the other hand, it's true that Putin needs the meeting more than Obama does. Apart from showing he's still an influential player, not a universally ignored local tyrant suffering a harsh comedown from an oil high, the Russian leader must try discussing a situational alliance in Syria.
Acting alone in Syria would be extremely risky for Russia. Putin can ill afford an unsuccessful military operation. Coordination with the U.S. would greatly increase the chances of success.
For the U.S., though, an alliance with Putin comes with strings attached: Once Islamic State is defeated, Washington would need to discuss the post-war setup with Moscow, and they have a poor record of agreeing on anything. Also, if Obama retreated on his commitment to bring down Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and agreed to a smooth transition of power in Damascus, he would give Republicans a new pretext to accuse him of weakness.
The meeting will undoubtedly be about Syria. Ukraine will be an afterthought, not even a bargaining chip: Putin cannot count on Obama to make any concessions there, because Russia is negotiating from a position of weakness. At the same time, the language from the White House indicates that it would be wrong to get one's hopes up about the meeting: It would be strange to stress Ukraine and avoid mentioning Syria if Obama and his people expected the talks to achieve a breakthrough in the Middle East.
Given Obama's reluctance, it's interesting that Putin still wants to talk. He's done a lot of homework, talking in quick succession with Saudi King Salman, Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who came to Moscow for the opening of a large new mosque. He's making sure the cease-fire holds in Ukraine. He hasn't acted in Syria, apart from bringing in some hardware and a limited number of troops (there have been no confirmed reports of the Russian forces doing any fighting). He has also found an unlikely ally in German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has suggested talking to Assad as well as his allies in Iran and Russia to resolve the conflict. Merkel needs peace in Syria to help her deal with the refugee crisis that threatens to undermine her in Germany.
Putin must demonstrate to all these leaders that he has tried to find a negotiated solution before he takes military action on Assad's side. Obama, for his part, can't assume that Putin's move into Syria is merely a bluff. Rebuffing the Russian leader might mean exacerbating the situation both in Syria and in Ukraine.
The U.S. president wouldn't have to concede much -- just to signal that he might be prepared to "rethink Syria," as his former Middle East coordinator Philip Gordon suggested Friday in a lengthy Politico article. Gordon's idea is for the U.S. to stop insisting on quick regime change and look for a compromise, which would involve coordination with Russia and Iran.
On the surface, the meeting will pit Obama's obstinacy against Putin's desperate machismo. Yet it might be the beginning of a peace process that would benefit everyone -- Putin, Assad, Obama and Merkel.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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