Arguably, President Vladimir Putin is in a bind, one of this own making. His annexation of Crimea and blatant involvement in Ukraine, despite persistent denials, has created a backlash from the West. A combination of personal sanctions against his most trusted advisors and economic restrictions on trade with Russia have created some difficulties for the regime. These measures in isolation were never going to force President Putin to back down over Crimea.
Anyone in the West who thinks that will happen simply do not understand President Putin. He is a man on a mission, and the idea of him backing away from Crimea having put so much of his personal political capital into its re-integration with Russia is simply living in a fool’s paradise. Putin is not a man about to apologise for his past actions. Indeed, I doubt the word “apology” is even a part of his political lexicon.
But another factor has combined with the sanctions to place Putin in a difficult place. The price of a barrel of oil has slumped from $100 to around $50. This has had a huge impact on the Russian economy. Its dependency on oil and gas exports already made Russia a rentier state. Now, with no end in sight for low oil prices and a glut of Iranian oil about to hit the markets, Putin has had to reduce his government’s previously expansive social welfare state as he’s scaled back on what was an ambitious program to modernize 70 percent of the armed forces.
For a previous head of the KGB skilled in the art of misinformation, these difficulties should not pose a problem. He has already skilfully manipulated the Russian population into believing everything can be blamed on the West. The latest line emerging from the Kremlin is that the current situation is a plot engineered in Washington to try and create another collapse of the Russian economy. Other Russian commentators close to Putin have gone so far as to suggest the White House created the circumstances in Crimea to force Russia to act, knowing that would draw Russia into the Ukraine.
That is a narrative that, if the current opinion polls in Russia are to be believed, is one that gains traction with the largely loyal and subservient population. But, despite the Russian mentality that accepts austerity as a natural part of their life, there are indications the once hugely popular Putin is suffering a down-turn in his ratings. For Putin, this is unknown territory.
Given Putin is not about to give up on the Ukraine, are we to believe the current impasse is simply the start of yet another “frozen conflict” such as those in Moldova, Georgia and Armenia? Or, is there a way out of this current stalemate?
Recent statements from the Kremlin are pointing to a new Russian strategy. This is based on an offer by the Kremlin to become a part of an anti-ISIL coalition that will tackle the threat from Islamic extremism emerging from the Middle East. Is this an olive branch from the President? Is this his way of saying, ‘look, get over the Crimea; its history.’ It was Russian before a quirk of history saw it given to the Ukraine. All that has happened is that the will of the people in Crimea has been recognized and the territory has been returned to its rightful place as a part of Russia.
The heart of Putin’s offer is a narrative that says Russia and the West need to work together to counter ISIL. It is, the Kremlin’s narrative suggests, a threat both to Russia and the West. Current figures suggest over 2,000 ethnic Russians have made the journey into Syria and Iraq to join ISIL. The routes back into Russia for those wishing to return and attack their homeland are far easier for these jihadists than those that have journeyed from America and Europe.
To add some substance to the proposal, Putin has already garnering support for what he is proposing. Discussions with Egypt and Turkey have already taken place. Both have their own very specific problems with ISIL inspired groups. Iraq will also give pay serious attention to any offer of collaboration from the Kremlin concerning its problems with ISIL.
The dire situation in Syria, however, is the one that is probably most on Putin’s mind. In trying to attract support for an anti-ISIL coalition, he knows that he is making such an offer at a time when vast waves of human migrants are reaching European shores, many as a direct result of the seemingly never-ending conflict in Syria — a situation Russia is seemingly being drawn deeper into every day as it tries to prop up the Assad regime. Whatbetter time for a political opportunist like Putin to make such an offer of a rapprochement with the West?
His offer has been backed by a few subtle hints that the United Nations General Assembly could be the place for the next stage in Russia’s attempt to persuade the West to get over the situation in Crimea. Putin has made it clear that in his visit to the UN General Assembly he will be pleased if he finds an opportunity to meet with Obama.
The White House reaction to such comments was immediate. A statement reacting to the offer from the Kremlin dismissed any suggestion that some kind of meeting was being arranged to discuss the current international security situation. Putin and Obama have agreed to meet, however. Given Putin’s offer, it’s not surprising informal talks are to be held by officials from the White House and Kremlin to see just what Putin has put on the table.
However, the offer by the Kremlin is one that should not be dismissed too quickly. Already, the elements of an international coalition against ISIL are coming together. In Nigeria, its neighbouring countries have agreed to cooperate to tackle the threat from the ISIL-affiliated Boko Haram. In Italy, political voices have called for providing assistance to forces in Libya trying to counter an emerging so-called “province” of the ISIL Caliphate that is trying to establish a footprint in locations such as Sirte. A pan-Arab force is also working in Yemen to try and tackle its instability and the long-term problem of Al Qaeda’s most loyal and internationally active franchise, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And in Iraq, a coalition of Western nations is involved in air strikes against ISIL.
These various elements of what is a renewed but as yet unannounced new global war on terror are supported and assisted by the United States.The one missing element in all of this is Syria, where to date the United States and Canada are the only countries involved in a bombing campaign. While such operations are based on informal links with the Assad regime, a rapprochement with the Russians would bring to the table a much granular picture of the current situation on the ground. This would be bound to have a positive impact on the way air power in Syria is being used.
While Washington may be inherently distrustful of Putin, and may find it hard to swallow the situation in Crimea, it may be that given the “wicked” and complex world in which we live, some kind of coalition with Russia against ISIL just might make sense. While on the surface some will portray it as another “victory” for Putin who may use it ruthlessly to help keep internal politics in Russia on-sided, it nevertheless is a way forward that does have some merits.
Despite his highly dubious track record, maybe the West should look to find a way of accepting Putin’s offer. It will only take one attack on American soil by ISIL to make any rejection of Putin’s offer look rather short-sighted. If an attack were to happen, it would not be difficult to forecast the Kremlin’s immediate remarks.
Contributing Writer Dave Sloggett has more than 40 years’ experience analyzing international security issues and supporting law enforcement and military organizations in the United Kingdom and US State Department and Department of Defense. His most recent books are, Focus on the Taliban, and, Drone Warfare. He’s a member of the American Psychological Association and the International Institute of Strategic Studies. He holds the visiting titles of Adjunct Professor of Behavioral Sciences at the Behavioral Dynamics Institute, a Senior Research Associate at the Center for the Mathematics of Human Behaviour at the University of Reading and an Associate Research Fellow at the Advanced Research and Assessment Group at the Royal College of Defense Studies.