Face-to-Face: Obama Meets Putin

September 28, 2015 Topic: Global Governance Region: Russia Tags: RussiaGeopoliticsUnited States

Face-to-Face: Obama Meets Putin

"The likelihood of negotiating settlements in Ukraine and Syria could be increased if President Obama uses the meeting with Putin to underscore a reality to Putin: Russia is exposed."


President Obama has agreed to meet with Russian president Vladimir Putin during the UN General Assembly meeting. Against the backdrop of a forward Russian strategy in Syria and Ukraine, and the uncertainty about Russian objectives in both theaters, the summit could be a success if it leads to a conceptual agreement for a balanced settlement to one or both of these conflicts. Failure should lead to a significant adjustment in U.S. strategy in both conflicts to increase pressure on Russia.

Russian actions in Ukraine and Syria pose a serious challenge to the United States and its allies. In Ukraine, Moscow’s campaign has resurrected the threat to Europe from the East and has called into question Europe’s commitment to its allies and partners. Russia’s actions in Syria, meanwhile, have contributed to bringing home to Europe a conflict that it sought at all costs to avoid. With a wave of refugees descending on the continent, a distant humanitarian crisis has become a domestic security threat touching on fundamental questions about European identity. Challenges from the East and South are exacerbating Europeans’ dissatisfaction with the project of European integration. A fractured Europe furthers Russian goals by denying the United States a strong, reliable partner in the world.


Putin has also exposed the limits of American will. In Syria, Russian backing for the Assad regime is pushing Sunnis into the hands of the Islamic State. At the same time that Russian policy fuels the Islamic State, Moscow is justifying its expanded military presence in the Middle East by citing the threat from Sunni extremism. Russia’s decision to send troops and equipment to Syria may be seen as a last-ditch effort to shore up its politically bankrupt client. However, the scale of Russia’s expansion into the heart of the region suggests that Moscow’s ambitions are not limited to the Syrian crisis. Russia may very well be poised to rekindle Cold War tensions by challenging the United States in a critical region from which it has been largely absent since the Cold War. In light of President Obama’s call for Assad’s ouster, the longer Russia can keep Assad in power, the more it can draw attention to unenforced U.S. redlines and undermine U.S. standing in the region.

President Obama’s most salient challenge is to discern whether Putin’s moves in Ukraine and Syria are driven principally by limited Russian interests in both theaters, or by a larger geopolitical design against the West.

If the former, the Obama-Putin meeting could outline the contours for settlements in Ukraine and/or Syria and lead to expert-level meetings to work on details. In Ukraine, a reasonable settlement means building on the Minsk II agreement and implementing a federal arrangement inside Ukraine that allows pro-Russian East Ukrainians to run their own internal affairs without undermining Ukraine’s ability to function effectively. Externally, the two sides could discuss Ukraine’s relationship with NATO, but otherwise, Ukraine would be free to develop independent relations with the West.

Syria provides an even broader opportunity for U.S.-Russian cooperation towards a balanced settlement. The conflict has morphed into a global proxy war with clashes across the full array of ethnic, sectarian and ideological divides in the Middle East. With the notable exception of ISIS, the conflict does not appear to be producing any winners. Like the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which brought the religious wars of Europe to an end, a U.S.-Russian brokered settlement that secures the buy-in of regional and global powers could at least provide guarantees on key redlines and set the stage for a more stable regional order.

Differences over issues like the fate of the Assad regime could be overcome given the reality that all parties would lose if Syrian state institutions totally disintegrated. Besides broadening the coalition against ISIS and intensifying the war against it, the key to a settlement is a unity government at the center that shares power in a balanced way among Syria’s myriad communities. Securing buy-in for a power-sharing agreement will require Assad’s departure, decentralization to ensure that Syria’s communities are guaranteed greater autonomy, and a timeline for the establishment of a new government. It will also require withdrawal of foreign forces including “advisors.” These conditions should be amenable to Moscow as long as Washington recognizes Russian access to the port of Tartus. A broad understanding between Russia and the United States should lead to expanding future meetings at lower levels to include Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey—the key regional players. A U.S.-Russian understanding will improve prospects for bringing the regional players along.

If, however, Moscow’s agenda is more ambitious and primarily directed against the West, a breakthrough with Putin is unlikely. Instead, the president will leave the meeting facing greater pressure to increase the costs to Moscow for its current policies. This will involve steps that the administration, heretofore, has resisted, but which would be necessary to press Moscow into meaningful negotiations at a later date.

In Ukraine, the United States will need to arm and train the Ukrainian armed forces and ramp up financial sanctions on Russia. Other necessary measures to increase NATO-Ukraine cooperation, promote economic reform in Ukraine and isolate Russian-dominated regions of Ukraine would require coordination with European allies who may not be on the same page as the United States.

Difficult negotiations lay ahead in Syria as well if Washington has to increase pressure against Moscow. The only way at that point to bolster the non-ISIS opposition to Assad would be to impose a no-fly and no-drive zone in coordination with Turkey and the Gulf States—which would also limit Russia’s air support to the regime.

The likelihood of negotiating settlements in Ukraine and Syria could be increased if President Obama uses the meeting with Putin to underscore a reality to Putin: Russia is exposed. It would not take much for the United States to turn Moscow’s short-term gains into a generational defeat for the Russian leadership. Putin’s cohort—nostalgic for the days of the Cold War—needs no reminder of the devastating toll that the Reagan Doctrine inflicted on Soviet ambitions. If U.S. aid to anti-communist insurgents around the world could defeat the Red Army, there is every reason to believe that the model could be replicated against today’s relatively weaker Russian force.

In this scenario, Putin may agree to reasonable settlements in Ukraine and Syria if President Obama can convince him that time favors the United States. Russia took advantage of a decade of high oil prices to reconstitute the core of its military, but once again faces severe demographic and economic challenges. If current trends continue, it is a matter of time before domestic realities force cuts in Russian military power. The key is to convince Russia to make a difficult choice: Cooperate with the United States now, or risk a quagmire in two conflicts that could redound against Putin at home.

If nothing else, the Obama-Putin summit will serve as a clarifying moment, revealing which side, if any, has a coherent strategy to deal with the mess in Ukraine and Syria.

Zalmay Khalilzad was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations 2007-2009.

Image: Flickr/poniblog