MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin was in a cheerful mood this week when he told his nation that he had just sealed a deal with President Obama on a limited truce in Syria going into effect midnight Friday.
The Russian leader loves to be in just that position, those who know him say. He was shaping world events, bargaining as an equal with the United States, in precisely the role he envisions for his nation.
But amid deep distrust on both sides, it remains uncertain whether the partial cease-fire will take hold. Nor is it clear whether Putin is willing to place limits on his Syrian allies in his bid for international statesmanship. Some in the Pentagon fear the truce is a feint to give Syrian President Bashar al-Assad the chance to regroup his forces and press forward in an attempt at a total reconquest of Syria.
For now, the Kremlin is portraying the truce as a Russian triumph — in part because it got the United States to the table.
After nearly two years in which sharp voices on Russian state media have demonized the United States, the tone from Putin this week was an unusual reversal. Over the course of his statement to the nation, he repeatedly mentioned “Russia and the U.S.,” “Russian and American experts,” “the Russian Federation or our American partners” — nine such mentions in all over the course of five minutes.
Evgeny Buzhinsky, a retired lieutenant general who is the chairman of the Moscow-based Russian Center for Policy Studies, said that “President Putin is sincere in his desire to restart relations and to have some sort of normalization with the United States first and with the West in general.”
But with growing skepticism toward Russia from Washington, there were warnings Thursday from Russian leaders that Obama should make his underlings snap to attention and salute. Many in the Obama administration, especially the Pentagon, distrust Putin’s intentions after months in which U.S.-backed rebels have been pummeled by Russian airstrikes, even as Russia said it was fighting the Islamic State. The White House has requested contingency plans about what to do if the truce collapses.
Some Russian policymakers said that the United States should have collaborated with the Syrian army from the start if it claimed to be against terrorism.
“The changes in the situation in Syria took place due to cooperation between the Syrian army and the Russian air force,” said Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the international affairs committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament.
“This is why the United States now has started to reconsider their strategy toward Syria,” he said. “Because they cannot achieve anything on their own.”
On Russian state television, a reliable conduit for the message the Kremlin wants to transmit to its population, talk shows have moved quickly to trumpet Kremlin successes in Syria.
“The players of the process are getting nervous,” Oleg Morozov, a member of the upper house of parliament, said on a leading talk show this month. “So they are trying to find solutions like how to react to Assad’s successes, how to react to success of the Russian air force and how to react to the fact that Americans simply cannot efficiently manage this process.”
Amid the high-paced Russian bombardment of Syria, Kremlin allies have cheered the efforts as a major success for one primary goal of the intervention, to keep Assad from being toppled from power by force.
In July, “the feeling was that Assad was finished, that it would be only a couple of months,” said Vladimir Yevseyev, a Middle East military expert at the Moscow-based Center for Social and Political Studies. That all changed after Russia began its airstrikes on Sept. 30, he said. “Now the situation is very different. It’s impossible to change Bashar al-Assad by force.”
But the Syrian government’s forces remain weak, he said. So if part of Assad’s opposition agrees to a truce deal, the remainder can be defeated more effectively.
“For the Syrian army it’s better to divide the opposition,” he said.
Major questions remain about how the warring sides will interpret the deal. The truce leaves an exception for fighting the Islamic State and al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. Since the Russian airstrikes started in September, the Kremlin has frequently said it was bombing terrorists as it hit Syrian rebels backed by the United States.
Russian leaders have vowed to keep pressing their fight against those whom they deem terrorists, even as they say their overall airstrikes have diminished in recent days.
“These are the barbarians of the 21st century, for whom there is no law, no morals, and U.S. and Russian proposals of cease-fire have no effect for terrorists,” the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, Sergey Naryshkin, told reporters in Vienna on Thursday, the Interfax news agency reported.
Meanwhile, a U.N. World Food Program airdrop of humanitarian aid to the eastern Syria town of Deir al-Zour, flown by Russian aircraft, failed to reach most of the up to 200,000 people there.
A news release cited “technical difficulties” in the high-altitude operation. A spokesman said that of 21 pallets dropped by parachute, 10 were unaccounted for, four were damaged and seven landed in an unreachable “no man’s land.”
Unlike cities in the west where aid has been delivered by truck convoys, Deir al-Zour is in the heart of the Islamic State-occupied part of Syria.
A statement by the opposition Syrian National Coalition cited “reports” that some of the aid had been seized by Syrian government forces, but there was no confirmation from the largely inaccessible region.