MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin will storm into New York on Monday seeking to prove that he will not be isolated at his first appearance at the U.N. General Assembly in a decade.
With a jackknife military and diplomatic pivot toward Syria, Putin has tried to mitigate the damage of a year’s adventurism in Ukraine in a defiant gambit he hopes will appeal to the West’s cold logic and need.
The sudden deployment to Syria of Russian warplanes and battle tanks has upended the West’s calculus of freezing out Russia and helped prompt a head-to-head meeting between Putin and President Obama on Monday in New York that was unthinkable just weeks ago.
In Moscow, Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, have declared that Russia’s call for a coalition against the Islamic State is gaining traction in the West. Though the White House said that Obama’s core message at the meeting with Putin would focus on Ukraine and not Syria, it appears that the Russians at least have a foot in the door.
A senior Western diplomat in Moscow this week said there is a growing appetite for dialogue with Putin about the Syrian crisis, particularly as Europe faces an unprecedented flood of migrants, many fleeing the war in Syria.
“He is not the one who needs a deal. He has time on his side. It is us who needs a deal more,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Whatever happens in Syria, we know that he will probably be a part of it.”
“Meanwhile, we see that he is attempting to steer the conversation away from Ukraine entirely,” he added.
The road to any compromise between Russia and the West will face a steep battle, as anger over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in Ukraine’s southeast has shattered diplomatic ties at most levels and driven relations to their worst since the end of the Cold War. And even if Putin is able to secure meetings with Western leaders, it does not ensure any results.
“There is still zero trust in the West about Putin and what he’s doing and what he says,” said Andrew Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Obama last spoke with Putin by phone in July following the conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal. The two spoke very briefly in person at a D-Day anniversary in France in June 2014 and at an economic summit in Australia in November. Obama canceled a 2013 bilateral summit with Putin after Russia gave refuge to the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Though fighting has decreased recently in Ukraine, progress following a road map out of the conflict called the Minsk Accords has come to a standstill. Meanwhile, the appearance of Russian forces in Syria has jump-started concerns that the Kremlin is doubling down on Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad or may accidentally come into conflict with Western forces.
Speaking before world leaders on Monday, Putin will attack the United States’s use of sanctions, Lavrov told reporters, probably including the individual and sectoral sanctions imposed on Russia in summer 2014 over the Ukraine crisis.
But overwhelmingly, officials and analysts said, he will focus on the Syrian crisis and the rising threat of international terrorism.
“The United Nations rostrum is hardly a place for work plans. It will be a statement of purpose,” said Boris Makarenko, the head of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies. “I am sure he will focus on the collapsing regime and world order, but I think it will sound peaceful. I am not sure it will be full of substance.”
Lavrov focused his efforts on Syria at a bilateral summit with European diplomats on Tuesday in Moscow. It did not include specific proposals on Syria, Western attendees said, only an invitation from the Russian government for cooperation.
Perhaps the thorniest issue dividing Russia and the West is the future of Assad, whom Secretary of State John F. Kerry urged Russia not to defend this week. The United States has demanded that Assad eventually step down in any settlement to the conflict. Russian officials deny they are protecting Assad, who faced a series of military defeats that alarmed advisers on the Kremlin’s Syria policy this summer, convincing them that he may require more direct support.
Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s official spokeswoman, said in an interview that the West’s pattern of intervention in the Middle East in the past decade and a half had fueled instability and terrorism in the region, calling it a “dead end” policy.
“We are not supporting Assad as a person,” Zakharova said when asked about accusations of human rights abuses that critics have leveled against him. “We did not say that he is a good guy or that he is a great leader. But Syria is an independent country, and it should develop through a political evolution and not become an exporter of terrorism. We support the Syrian struggle against terrorism.”
Critics say that Russia’s focus on terrorism is misdirection, citing data that Assad’s army is responsible for more than seven times as many deaths as the Islamic State in the first six months of 2015.
According to satellite imagery and U.S. officials, Russia has 28 military jets, 14 helicopter gunships and transports, as well as T-90 main battle tanks and surface-to-air missile systems now stationed in Latakia, an Assad stronghold in Syria’s northwest. Kerry on Tuesday said that the deployment “basically represents force protection,” because most of the jets are meant for ground attack.
Dmitri Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, declined to comment on media reports on Thursday that Russia would consider carrying out airstrikes in Syria even if a deal with the West on military cooperation is not struck.
“Strangely enough, now Russia has arrived at the situation where Russian intervention is needed in order to deny the principle of intervention at large,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, a leading and well-connected political analyst in Moscow. “I don’t think the question in Russia is whether to keep Assad or get rid of Assad. It’s about what to do with the remnants of Syrian statehood.”