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27 November 2015

Russia-West: Not much has changed since Paris

Why there is no chance for real détente

Sometimes the fog of war changes everything, and the shoot down of a Russian SU-24 bomber by the Turkish air force is a case in point. Until this incident occurred, it appeared as though ties between Russia and the West were improving as both made steps towards cooperation after the Paris attacks.

Will Tuesday’s clash put a stop to this warming trend? Certainly, much depends on how the various parties – particularly Russian President Vladimir Putin –respond to the shoot down. If Putin is smart, he will wait for emotions to settle and then find a way to downplay the incident in favor of promoting Russia’s broader geopolitical and economic interests in patching things up with the West. Whether this will occur or not remains unclear, but assuming the incident does not escalate further, tentative signs of a potential Western-Russian rapprochement have appeared.

Consider the recent G20 meetings in Turkey.  At the 2014 G20 meetings in Australia Russian Putin was practically a pariah, harangued by every Western leader in attendance due to the Ukraine crisis. After two days of this, Putin finally left the summit early in an angry huff – ostensibly to get some extra sleep.

The scene at this year’s G20 summit however was dramatically different. As fears of ISIS dominated the thoughts of Western leaders after the Paris attacks, Putin was the man with whom every leader wanted to speak. In a crowning moment for the Russian leader, Putin huddled with President Obama to discuss Syria –images which quickly flashed around the world.

The G20 was just the start. The day after the attacks, diplomats from the United States, Russia and other nations met in Vienna to discuss the Syrian crisis, and the parties agreed on an 18 month transition plan for Syria leading to free elections. This represented a sharp divergence from Obama’s previous demands for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to immediately step down.

On the military front, French President Francois Hollande expressed the desire to ally with Russia against ISIS, and the two countries immediately coordinated joint strikes against ISIS positions in their “capital” of Raqqa. President Obama then called Putin a “constructive partner,” even raising the possibility of direct American-Russian military coordination in Syria.

On Ukraine meanwhile, signs of an end to European solidarity over sanctions appeared. The head of the French Senate stated it was time for sanctions to end – a step Hollande has long hoped to see. A number of German leaders even suggested the time had come to welcome Russia back into the G8 and – in a demonstration of both hypocrisy as well as the power wielded by German business interests – Berlin and Moscow recently made a side deal for Gazprom to build two new gas pipelines along the existing Nord stream route.

Observing these events, a number of former Soviet bloc block countries in Eastern Europe worry their interests may be sacrificed on the altar improved Western-Russian ties. Not surprisingly, the Ukrainians are particularly apoplectic over the possibility that the West may trade Russian cooperation in Syria for an end to sanctions over Ukraine. While these fears are understandable, they needn’t be overly concerned: Even apart from the immediate tension over the Russian bomber, broader policy disagreements likely make this rapprochement a shorter-term relationship of military convenience in Syria rather than the start of a new long-term romance.

For starters, Russia and the West – particularly the United States – still look at Syria very differently than Putin does. Despite the successful outcome of the talks in Vienna, Obama still calls any outcome that leaves Assad in power “unimaginable.” Putin, by contrast, clearly holds open the possibility that Assad may remain in power longer than the West assumes.

The Vienna deal on Syria also comes with an overlooked catch: Assad and the opposition must first agree to a ceasefire before the 18 month transition clock starts ticking. Unfortunately, a transition ending with his departure clearly leaves Assad incented to do everything he can to draw out ceasefire negotiations. In that scenario, how much pressure will Putin be willingness to place on Assad?

Moreover, despite shifting some of their efforts to attacking ISIS positions, Russian jets also continue to strike non-ISIS rebels in Latakia, Hama, Idlib, and Dera’a to support advanced by Assad’s ground forces. Given that Obama already indicated the United States intends to closely monitor Russia’s actions in Syria, it’s not difficult to imagine the fight between Washington and Moscow on Syria’s future reemerging. This remains especially true given that Putin would likely demand Russian interests in Syria – which include billions of dollars of contracts as well as a burgeoning series of military bases – be respected in any post-Assad Syria.

Turning to Ukraine – the other locus of Western-Russian contention – the prospects for agreement look even less promising. Despite calls for an anti-ISIS alliance, the situation in Donbas is rapidly deteriorating. After several weeks of quiet, the tempo of attacks by Russian-supported rebels recently escalated, with the Ukrainian military reporting 52 strikes against its positions in a single day. The rebels make the counter-claim that Ukrainian heavy artillery targets their positions.

More importantly, as senior fellow of the American Foreign Policy Council Stephen Blank notes, “the Europeans have just agreed in principle to extend the Ukraine sanctions another six months. While French-Russian military coordination and the German-Russian Nord stream deal are real, sanctions now look set to continue. This is a set-back for Putin who clearly hoped to trade his cooperation in Syria against ISIS for an end to sanctions in Ukraine.”

While the Ukraine sanctions are rolled over only another six months, the Europeans continue to require that the Minsk II agreement be fully implemented before sanctions are lifted. A number of tricky obstacles continue to block this outcome. For one thing, the Ukrainian Parliament has only just begun to consider a law outlining the process of local elections in separatist-held territory in Donbas.

More importantly, the bigger question is whether Putin will accede to perhaps the most critical part of the Minsk II requirements - the return of the control of the Russia-Ukraine borders to Kyiv. Control of the border remains key to Russia’s hybrid war strategy in Donbas. Once Ukraine regains full authority over its border, Russia’s ability to move troops and equipment into Donbas is greatly reduced – as is Moscow’s leverage over Kyiv’s future orientation.

Given Putin’s sunk costs in Donbas and the Kremlin’s determination to prevent Ukraine from joining Western institutions, the Kremlin is likely to drag out the full implementation of Minsk II. This in turn means Western sanctions will remain in place, thereby keeping a decisive obstacle in the path of a true détente.

To be clear, events may yet alter this conclusion. Much depends on how both sides handle the Turkey-Russia clash, as well as whether another terrorist attack in Europe occurs – something which could cause the West to decisively throw aside differences with Russia to fight ISIS. However, while Putin looked like the spy who came in from the cold post-Paris, enough differences still exist to prevent a true warming between Russia and the West.

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