The meeting of three presidents—Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani—in Sochi last Wednesday (November 22), was supposed to mark a triumph for Russian foreign policy. But instead, the trilateral summit sent confusing signals and left mixed feelings. A day before the get-together, Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad arrived in Russia; Putin was photographed giving al-Assad a friendly hug, and the Kremlin leader introduced his guest to the Russian top brass (Kommersant, November 22). After that, Putin made a series of phone calls to brief the leaders of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel about his plan to hold a conference of parties to the war in Syria, in Sochi. The most important call, however, was to President of the United States Donald Trump, particularly because their recent non-meeting in Đà Nẵng, Vietnam (see EDM, November 6, 9), had left Putin bitterly upset (Moskovsky Komsomolets, November 10).
Important as it is for the Russian leader to declare victory in Syria at the start of his yet-to-be-launched presidential campaign, proving to his US counterpart that Russia is in control of the end phase of this protracted war was even more vital (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, November 23). The readout of the Putin-Trump call from the Kremlin emphasizes the “mutual satisfaction” with the “constructive” conversation. But it is rather unclear whether the US side expressed any objections to the Russian plan to empower the al-Assad regime (Kremlin.ru, November 21). In the Russian media, there was much bragging about denying the United States and the European Union any role in the Syrian settlement, and plentiful demands to discontinue the “illegitimate” US presence in the war zone (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 23). The official line, however, tilts more toward establishing a cooperation of sorts rather than to expelling the US from its bases in Syria. It was only Rouhani who lashed out against “external” support for terrorists at the Sochi summit, while Putin took a more circumspect tone (New Times, November 22).
Iran has gained a major role in the brutally “pacified” Syria, and this constitutes a serious problem for Russia (Rosbalt, November 23). Rouhani had a separate meeting with Putin after the formal summit, but little information was released about the content of these talks. Putin is certainly aware that the massive Iranian presence in Syria is unacceptable for Israel and for the US, but he also knows that the stability of the al-Assad regime depends much more on this forceful support than on Russian bases in Latakia and Tartus (RBC, November 23). Tehran is worried about Russia’s separate talks with the US and Jordan about the “de-escalation zones” in southern Syria. Consequently, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had to resort to diplomatic hypocrisy when he explained that the promise to encourage the withdrawal of non-Syrian forces from the planned de-escalation zone near the Golan Heights did not involve Iranian troops (Mid.ru, November 14). The proposition to transform the anti–Islamic State coalition into an anti-Iranian front—advanced by Israel and backed by Saudi Arabia—may not be entirely feasible, but it reveals a weakness in Russia’s regional plan for peace-building (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 21).
Another weakness is Turkey’s highly ambivalent engagement with the Russian-Iranian “brotherhood-in arms.” The trilateral Sochi summit took place exactly two years after a Turkish F-16 fighter jet shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber, which triggered a severe and still not entirely redressed crisis in bilateral relations (Gazeta.ru, November 24). Erdoğan had gone a long mile to rebuild his country’s partnership with Russia; nevertheless, at the end of the November 22 Sochi summit, he announced that the participation of Kurdish “terrorists” in the planned peace conference was unacceptable for Turkey (Kommersant, November 23). The Kurdish issue was also a key topic in Erdoğan’s telephone conversation with Trump last Friday (November 24), but Putin cannot count on any support from Washington in his maneuvering around this obstacle (Russiancouncil.ru, November 19). The grouping of opposition figures known as the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), sponsored by Saudi Arabia, has also expressed a negative attitude toward the Russia-promoted conference in Sochi (RBC, November 23). Moscow cannot offer the rebels of various persuasions financial incentives or political patronage, so it has to rely on the convincing power of its bombs.
Putin’s attempt to dominate the settlement in Syria coincided with the annual gathering of the Russian top brass, in which the commander-in-chief wanted particularly to hear about how Russia’s modern weapons systems have been performing in the Syrian intervention (Kremlin.ru, November 23). The main task this year is to finalize the State Armament program, which is at least two years overdue—the time frame has shifted from 2025 to 2027 (Kommersant, November 15). Continuing economic stagnation has forced the government to curtail the growth of defense expenditures; yet, the deepest cuts have gone to social programs (Rosbalt, November 24). What made a shockingly strong impression, however, was Putin’s directive to all major enterprises, irrespective of ownership, to be prepared to expand defense-related production “in the time of need” (New Times, November 23). This emphasis on Soviet-style mobilization capacity (see EDM, September 29, 2016) undercuts all modest proposals for economic reforms advanced by former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, who argues in vain that it is the growth of poverty that constitutes the most serious and “shameful” challenge to Russia (Vedomosti, November 25).
President Putin’s strongest talent in both foreign and domestic policymaking is his ability to tell each audience exactly what it wants to hear and to promise every counterpart a gift of crucial importance. But this trick is not working so well these days. He cannot lure elderly voters with promises of forthcoming pension increases while simultaneously satisfying the demands of his generals. He cannot make Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believe that Iran will withdraw its forces from Syria, and he cannot convince Erdoğan that Russia is taking Turkish interests on the Kurdish issue to heart. He may be able to reassure Trump—who is eager to be persuaded—of Moscow’s innocence when it comes to interference in the 2016 US elections. But the body of evidence gathered by various investigations forcefully condemn Putin in the eyes of the US Congress. Meanwhile, Moscow’s “victory” in Syria is undermined by the crimes of chemical attacks carried out by the Russia-backed regime in Damascus (see EDM, April 10) and the complete destruction of Aleppo with the support from indiscriminate Russian aerial bombing (see EDM, October 18, 2016) as well as by the fact that Raqqa was captured by the US-backed coalition. Peace in Syria ultimately depends upon the removal of the al-Assad regime, but that would mean a fiasco for Putin’s intrigues.