Vladimir Putin’s Good-Cop, Bad-Cop Act

Russia's leader wins President Obama's praise for his role in the Iran nuclear deal. But ongoing disputes from Syria to Ukraine raise doubts about the prospects for truly friendly relations.

US President Barack Obama walks to a group photo session with Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit at Yanqi Lake, north of Beijing on November 11, 2014. Top leaders and ministers of the 21-member APEC grouping are meeting in Beijing from November 7 to 11. AFP PHOTO/Greg BAKER        (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama walks to a group photo session with Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit at Yanqi Lake, north of Beijing on November 11, 2014. Top leaders and ministers of the 21-member APEC grouping are meeting in Beijing from November 7 to 11. AFP PHOTO/Greg BAKER (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)

Two weeks ago, President Barack Obama expressed rare praise for President Vladimir Putin, thanking the Russian leader for his role in securing the Iran nuclear deal and expressing hope that cooperation could spill into other contentious areas like ending the conflict in Syria. “We would not have achieved this agreement had it not been for Russia’s willingness to stick with us,” Obama said in an interview this month with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

But the diplomatic camaraderie that helped advance talks over Iran’s nuclear program has not translated into cooperation on a range of other key Western priorities, from the Balkans to Syria, where the United States and its Arab and European allies have strained for years to convince Russia to put pressure on the Syrian government to yield power to a transitional government. The diplomatic friction between the United States and Russia was plainly on display at the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday in a dispute over Ukraine.

Russia’s U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, on Wednesday vetoed a Security Council resolution to establish a war crimes tribunal to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of last year’s July 17 shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 as it flew over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. The Russian veto came hours after Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte pleaded with Putin in a phone call not to block the vote. Malaysia introduced the resolution along with Ukraine; the Netherlands, which lost nearly 200 citizens in the downing; and Australia and Belgium, representing other passengers who were killed. In the Security Council, Churkin marshaled a series of arguments — that tribunals are politicized and costly, that it is premature to set up a court since an international investigation into the MH17 shoot-down will not be completed until October — to defend its veto.

“The recital of discredited intentions and the anticipated excuses and obfuscation by the Russian Federation should be treated with the utmost disdain,” Julie Bishop, the foreign minister of Australia, which lost 27 of its citizens in the air disaster, told the council after the vote. “The exercise of the veto today is an affront to the memory of the 298 victims of MH17 and their families and friends.” She said that Australia and other grieving countries would find an alternative court to prosecute those found responsible for the crime.

This month, Russia vetoed another resolution, sponsored by Britain, that would have condemned the 1995 mass killing of Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Serbs as a “crime of genocide.” It was the seventh veto Russia had cast in the Security Council since February 2011, when it issued its first no vote to block a Western-backed resolution condemning the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his country’s civil war.

By contrast, the Obama administration has cast its veto only once since 2011, blocking a resolution condemning Israel’s construction of settlements as illegal. The United States also voted against a Palestinian-backed resolution in December 2014 calling for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank and East Jerusalem by late 2017. But it wasn’t counted as a veto because the Palestinians lacked the nine votes required for the adoption of a resolution by the 15-nation Security Council.

At the time, Churkin said the British initiative unfairly singled out the Serbs, who also suffered mass displacement in other parts of the Balkans during the conflict. “Do we need to ask ourselves the question of who suffered the most?” he asked the council. “It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that they suffered as much as others, if not more.”

The relationship is being tested again on Syria. Putin called Obama several weeks ago to discuss the crisis in Syria, leaving the U.S. president with the impression that his Russian counterpart is worried that Assad is “losing a grip over greater and greater swaths of territory inside of Syria,” Obama told Friedman. The realization raised “an opportunity to have a serious conversation with them.”

In New York, the United States is seeking to convince Russia to support a U.N. draft resolution that would hold perpetrators who used chemical weapons in Syria accountable for their crimes. Those talks, which have played out behind closed doors for months, have stalled. Diplomats see few signs that Russia and the United States are anywhere near striking a deal that would lead to Assad’s departure from power and an end to the country’s nearly four-and-a-half-year-long civil war.

“I would be leery of heralding any U.S.-Russia cooperation in the UNSC [U.N. Security Council] as anything but tactical posturing,” said Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “At the diplomatic working level, Russia’s main goals are to remain relevant and be taken seriously. That explains the tactical moves of Russian diplomats occasionally in cooperation with Western states, but more often to obstruct them. Either one is a win if Russia is seen as the linchpin or the major obstacle to something that is a priority for Washington or Europe.”

Russian leaders have harbored suspicions, dating back to the pro-democracy protests of 2011, that the United States has been dedicated to destabilizing Putin’s government and diminishing Russia’s standing as a world power, Rojansky said. They see U.S. support for the pro-democracy movement in Ukraine as a stealth campaign to undermine Russia’s security interests in its own backyard.

“At a political level, the absolutely overwhelming priority for the Kremlin is regime stability and survival, which augurs for continued hostility and skepticism toward Washington, which would be hard to square with very visible U.S.-Russia partnership,” Rojansky said. “The perception is that the West has been trying to threaten the sine qua non of Russian survival as an independent state, let alone a great power, since at least 2011.”

Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that though the Ukraine crisis has “sucked all of the air from the U.S.-Russian relationship,” Washington and Moscow have found areas where their interests have aligned and where they have worked productively together to solve problems. He cited the Russian and U.S. negotiations in 2014 that led to the elimination of Syria’s declared chemical weapons program.

More broadly, Russia and the United States have a “common interest in trying to prevent jihadist movements like ISIL from taking more territory” in Syria and Iraq, he said, using another name for the Islamic State.

Kuchins said he was “struck by the way in which President Obama spoke graciously and gratefully about the role of Vladimir Putin, because through his presidency he has never spoken that positively about him.” It would mark a “big breakthrough,” he said, if they could agree to hold perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks accountable for their actions. The more diplomatic wins, he said, the better the chances of restoring the balance in the relationship.

In the meantime, U.N. officials say the situation in Syria is growing increasingly desperate by the day, with government forces stepping up indiscriminate attacks with barrel bombs against heavily populated cities. Extremist groups, principally the Islamic State, have been spreading their military reach over Syria and Iraq.

“What began in Syria as unrest in March 2011 has transformed into a war characterized by the complete failure to protect civilians, generating gargantuan levels of suffering for most civilians,” Stephen O’Brien, the U.N.’s chief emergency relief coordinator, told the Security Council on Tuesday. Currently, he said, 12.2 million Syrians need humanitarian assistance.

He also estimated that some 220,000 people have been killed in Syria since the start of the conflict and that, in what he described as “another tragic milestone,” the number of registered refugees has reached 4 million. O’Brien called it “the largest refugee population from a single conflict worldwide in over a quarter of a century.”

Successive efforts by U.N. envoys, including former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Algerian diplomatic troubleshooter Lakhdar Brahimi, have largely failed to bridge differences between the United States and Russia or to persuade the Syrians to put down their guns.

Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy to Syria, said “the fear of black flags over Damascus is driving some to consider reassessing their earlier positions.” He described “dissonance on how to get there,” without specifying where the divergent views lay. The most “polarizing” issue is the devolution of executive authority to a transitional body, he said.

“Sadly, there is still no consensus on the way forward,” de Mistura said, on a formal negotiation to implement a 2012 pact, called the Geneva Communiqué, which spells out plans for a phased political transition in Syria.

But de Mistura pledged to continue pursuing efforts to get the warring Syrian parties to agree to direct or indirect talks aimed at addressing a handful of issues. He proposed inviting Syrians to engage in a round of discussions addressing the safety and protection of all the country’s people; plans for a political transition; military and security issues, including the need to confront extremists; and the ensuring of access and availability to public services.

Failure to resolve the conflict, he warned, increases the risk of a “multigenerational conflict that, with each passing month, reduces the prospects of ever restoring Syria as a unified state.”

Photo credit: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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