RUSSIA MONITOR

Date: 4 May 2017

Counter-attack of Russian Diplomacy

That was an eventful long May weekend for Vladimir Putin. In just two days, he met the leaders of Germany and Turkey and had a phone call with the US president. The main topic was the conflict in Syria. This way, the Kremlin tries to retake the initiative after a series of political setbacks on this front.

© EPA/ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/POOL: PAP/EPA

On 2 May in Sochi, the Russian president entertained chancellor Angela Merkel and shortly after he spoke with Donald Trump on the phone. Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Sochi the following day.

The conversation with Merkel was the first bilateral meeting of the leaders of Germany and Russia since Russia’s aggression on Ukraine in 2014. And it was the Ukraine conflict that took centre stage. Judging by what both leaders had to say at the press conference, the meeting with Merkel did not go according to Putin’s plan. Sanctions will continue, Russia’s G8 return is not on the cards, and the leaders of Germany and Russia clashed on the issue of what caused the Donbas conflict. Merkel also stiffened her position on the timeframe of Minsk accords implementation: first Ukraine’s access to the border with Russia, and only after that, local elections in the Donbas. On top of that, she also addressed the issues of persecution of gays in Chechnya and banning the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. Neither was any agreement as to Syria reached. Merkel reiterated Germany’s hard-line stance towards the Assad regime and criticized Russian aid for Damascus. In her view, Russia is to a certain degree responsible for the human casualties of airstrikes.

Also the phone call with Trump brought essentially nothing new. It was the third time the leaders talked after the American took office but the first call after the US strike on Assad’s base. While there was a hint that the two leaders could meet in the corridors of the G20 summit, not much has changed in respect of profound differences regarding key issues that came to light during April’s visit of the chief US diplomat to Moscow. Both countries have more and more differing views not only about Syria and Ukraine, but also Afghanistan and the INF treaty.

Perhaps the meetings with Turkey’s president are closest to a success for the Kremlin. It seems that after the chilly spell in Ankara’s relations with Moscow that followed the Turks’ support of the US strike on the Shayrat base, the situation is returning to the previous state, aided by the emerging tensions on the Ankara-Washington line in the context of the Kurdish problem. Erdogan has not lived to see diminishing US support for the Kurdish units in northern Syria, so he’s voicing new threats. This time, while the president was meeting with Putin in Sochi, his adviser suggested in the media that American military advisers who accompany Kurdish fighters from the YPG formation could become target of Turkish airstrikes. The Russian idea of creating “security zones” in Syria suggests that the Moscow-Ankara-Tehran combination is back on.

Putin is unlikely to have expected any great success of his conversations with Merkel and Trump, the message was rather the mere fact that they were held. This way, Russia is again demonstrating that it is a player that cannot be left out from the resolution of any serious conflict (mainly Syria and Ukraine). It is also an important message for the Russian public which could have started to doubt the position of its president as a world power in the wake of recent events in Syria and US activities. The Kremlin had to show that it will not succumb in its policies by an inch under American pressure (Shayrat strike, Tillerson’s visit), as this would be poorly received by most of Russia’s public opinion. This is something Putin cannot afford in an election year. This is by means the end of the diplomatic offensive, which targets important countries from the US point of view. On 10-11 May, the leaders of Israel and Palestine will hold talks with Putin, and a few days later, the president of the Philippines is expected in Moscow.

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