Putin and the Art of Listening

Alastair Crooke, Valdai Discussion Club, 30 March 2016

Lessons learned from Russia’s experience in Ukraine are being applied to Syria – including the importance of providing humanitarian supplies, as a peace-building tool. But Ukraine also gives us a framework to better understand what President Putin is trying to achieve by the ceasefire and military drawdown.
A series of daily reports – not easily accessed or compiled – tells us much about Russian thinking on Syria: these are the daily reports issued from the Russian Centre for Reconciliation, operating out of Russia’s Hmeymim Airbase in Syria. It is clear from these bulletins that President Putin is not betting his shirt on Geneva to produce a solution (any more than the Minsk accords did in Ukraine, though they may remain the ‘parameters’ to a solution).
Take this extract from one recent (21 March) bulletin:

“In the course of last 3 days, 17 joint sessions with representatives of the Russian Centre, ceasefire committees, leaders of 6 political parties and movements have been held in order to expand safety zone in the provinces of #Homs, #Hama, and #Aleppo.
Preliminary truce agreements have been achieved with representatives of 3 towns of the #Daraa and #Damascus provinces.
The total number of settlements, the leaders of which have signed reconciliation agreements, has remained 51.
Negotiations with field commanders of 2 armed formations active in the Damascus province are continued. Issues concerning joining ceasefire regime have been discussed.
The number of ceasefire application forms signed with leaders of armed groupings has remained 43”.

The Russian Army, which is working in conjunction with the Ceasefire International Group and the Syrian Reconciliation Ministry, evidently has been busy indeed, with peace-making, and also the provision of humanitarian supplies. The bulletin of 18 March relates that in the previous week alone, the Air Base at Hmeymim delivered 144 tons of humanitarian aid to various towns and villages, which it notes had until recently, been under the control of armed groups, but now – thanks to this process of dialogue – were receiving relief provided by Russians (and officials from the Syrian Ministry of Reconciliation).

This is a major bottom-up peacebuilding effort being conducted by the Russian Army. And its context is this: during the years of conflict, the Syrian government focussed on keeping the state apparatus alive in Syria’s urban areas – even in those that were under the control of ISIS. It has continued to pay salaries to officials in towns such as Raqa’a, for example, even when those officials were not permitted to work owing to the city’s occupation by armed groups. But in the rural areas of Syria, the apparatus of the state largely vanished. Local leaders were forced to fend for themselves – defending their land and homes as best they could, often establishing local militia for self-defence.

These villages and small towns, it seems, now feel confident enough to enter into dialogues, and perhaps into reconciliation agreements brokered by the Russians, or by the Syrian government, or by international organisations working on the ground. It was often assumed (by many western commentators) that these villages were either anti-government or actively supporting the armed groups. But it seems now, that this was never so: they had simply adopted the studied neutrality necessary to survive in fraught circumstances: an understandable posture. More importantly, it appears that these Syrians simply are tired of the fighting, and wish to return to normal life – and the Russians seem to be offering the best route back to that objective.

Why should this be so significant? It says that Russia’s plan ‘B’ – should Geneva flop – is already under construction; and secondly, it has probably been the basis (the ceasefire working beyond expectations) for Syria’s leadership to take a military gamble, which may have a profound import. These bulletins also tell us something else: they suggest that lessons learned from Russia’s experience in Ukraine are being applied to Syria – including the importance of providing humanitarian supplies, as a peace-building tool. But Ukraine also gives us a framework to better understand what President Putin is trying to achieve by the ceasefire and military drawdown. In the Ukraine, the Donbas factions were militarily supported, but there were ceasefires and times when the Russian military supply line to the Donbas militia was controversially shut down, effectively halting military operations by the Donbas militas.

In short, Putin avoided to force the issue of Ukraine too robustly (perhaps believing that moving too robustly would prompt aggressive US push-back (something he wanted to avoid) as it risked embedding a dynamic of escalation into the Ukraine calculus). Thus President Putin alternated military activity with diplomatic activity – and with each diplomatic step, edged the Europeans (with Washington in the background), step by step, closer towards political parameters that became, as it were, ‘facts on the ground’. Bit by bit, he shifted the international community, largely to embrace Russia’s parameters on the solution for Ukraine.

In Ukraine, Russia’s position was one of loose federalism, but for Syria, Russia has accepted that federalism is not appropriate (simply Syria’s component elements have been too long intermingled, and its national identity to well-founded, to merit federalisation). Russia’s parameters instead have been set out as that of a single, undivided Syrian State: its state structures remaining intact, and with the Syrian people taking possession of their own political future. Here too, Putin and Lavrov have been largely successful in quietly and incrementally embedding Russia’s parameters as diplomatic ‘facts’ through the Vienna 1 and Vienna 2 processes, and the wording of the UNSC ceasefire resolution.

With its 1, 2, 3 steps – effective military intervention, followed by a ceasefire (in agreement with the US), and military drawdown – Russia has managed to skirt the dangers of either some sort of a US or Turkish/Saudi backlash in Syria, which Russia’s military operation might have occasioned (NATO states have not witnessed any out of theatre, non-western projection of force in pursuit of foreign policy objectives for decades – and which could have disconcerted the alliance).

Again as in Ukraine, the mix of military and diplomatic operations has succeeded in limiting western hostility towards Russia’s moves. Indeed, Russia is in a much improved situation – a position that is likely to be assisted by the recent ISIS attacks in Brussels. There is now shaping-up a stronger international resolve to defeat ISIS, and to have some resolution of Syria’s conflict.

If Geneva does not bring a resolution (which seems quite possible — to date the Syrian sides have not found sufficient agreement even to meet directly) the bottom-up, organic, internal process in Syria, in which the Russian army is playing a key part, is building a practical reality. The daily bulletins from the Russian Reconciliation Centre, in their dry, matter-of-fact style, indicate that the ceasefire generally is holding – albeit with minor breaches, happening each day, leaving the Syrian army and its allies more latitude to pursue ISIS and An-Nusra.

Quietly, whilst most are preoccupied with the political process, Syria and its ground forces seem to have decided to take a gamble: to do what conventional western thinking says cannot be done: to win the war militarily. Largely unnoticed amidst the media ‘noise’ about the motives for the Russian ‘withdrawal’, the Syrian-Russian coalition has pulled out its most experienced troops from around Aleppo (leaving behind only recently trained recruits), and redeployed one of its most experienced, and highly decorated, generals from Qalamun, General Tarraf.

One element of the Syrian forces (assisted by Hizbullah) has surrounded and now entered Palmyra (severing supply routes): they have begun operations inside the town, whilst General Taraaf and his special forces have arrived at Deir az-Zour. The intent then seems to be for that force then to proceed up the road to link up with General Taraaf, and to relieve the encircled Syrian forces at Deir az-Zour. If this can be achieved, then a Syrian Army-led assault on Raqa’a seems likely.

This is a very bold move. One might expect that Qassem Soleimani may have had a hand in such an audacious move. What is involved is the transfer of the Syrian Army’s Tiger Brigade to Palmyra, and the Marine Regiment away from Lattakia province (which has almost been cleared of jihadists). We may expect to see ISIS to try to take advantage in Eastern Aleppo and An-Nusra in Idlib. Much will depend on the calibre of the newly-trained, but inexperienced, Syrian forces holding the positions recently vacated by the elite units. The reality is that Syria is still shy of a few thousands of experienced troops to complete this advance without risking reverses in territory recently gained.

So, how will this impact on the Russian objective of trying to corner the US into a substantive ‘reset’ of its relations with Russia, built on co-operation over Syria? Certainly, President Putin had warm words to say about American co-operation last night before his meeting with Secretary Kerry: “We understand that what we have managed to achieve on Syria has only been possible thanks to the constructive position of the political leadership in the US, the position of President Obama,” Putin said.

But a reset of relations will not be easy as Thomas Graham, a former Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russia on the US National Security Council staff from 2004 to 2007, and Director for Russian Affairs on that staff from 2002 to 2004, has noted in a recent interview:

“Difficult relations were inevitable”, [Graham said in answer to the question of whether a breach in relations is likely to be long-lasting and not be changed with the arrival of a new incoming Administration] “if only because the United States and Russia espouse radically different views of world order. We interpret differently key principles such as sovereignty, territorial integrity, and self-determination; we differ over what constitutes the legitimate use of force; we disagree about the legitimacy of spheres of influence; and, of course, we count different numbers of poles of power in the world today. Two countries with such profound differences can co-exist, and even cooperate in a multipolar world, but they can never be strategic partners, as many in both countries had hoped at the end of the Cold War. Tough competition was and remains inevitable; all that was missing in the early post-Cold War period was a Russia strong enough to defend its interests. That situation changed after Putin rose to power [emphasis added].

“A breach in relations, a total breakdown in communication, was not inevitable, however. That was a consequence of the way both Moscow and Washington reacted to the Ukraine crisis. Each side blames the other for the breach; neither side is prepared to take the initiative in restoring ties. Simply saying, as Moscow does, that it is prepared for dialogue if Washington is, is not the same as taking steps to encourage the emergence of dialogue. “We did not start this” is not an invitation to restore relations. In fact, Washington is also ready to end the breach … if only Moscow backs down on all the issues – on Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, in particular – that lie at the core of the current tension. Mutatis mutandis, that is Moscow’s position too.

“The Clinton Administration was determined to transform Russia into a free-market democracy along American lines, and, if it talked of partnership, Russia was distinctly the junior partner. The Obama Administration was only willing to work with Russia on a narrow range of issues in which Russian participation was indispensable, primarily in the area of strategic arms controls, consistent with Obama’s initial signature goal of creating a world without nuclear weapons. In both the Clinton and Obama Administrations there were large bilateral commissions (Gore-Chernomyrdin and the Bilateral Presidential Commission) that created an illusion of broader partnership, but the concrete result in both cases were underwhelming.

“To be sure, there were those in the Bush Administration – largely neocons – who did not pursue the goal of strategic partnership in good faith, as there were retrograde forces on the Russian side, especially in the power ministries, who feared the consequences of a genuine strategic partnership and worked to thwart its realization. But the important point is that the two Presidents shared the ambition to create such a partnership. That shared ambition survived even the American intervention in Iraq in spring 2003. By the fall of that year, vigorous efforts were being made by both sides to restore the foundations of partnership.

“The turning point came in the fall of 2004, bookended by two events: the Beslan tragedy in September, and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in November/December. Those events led Putin and the rest of the Russian leadership to conclude that the United States was in fact out to weaken and contain Russia: that counterterrorism and democracy promotion were both smokescreens intended to mask America’s geopolitical advance in the former Soviet space. By the middle of 2005, Moscow had developed a coherent strategy to push back against American influence throughout that region. The competition there sharpened and poisoned the entire relationship.

“At the same time, Moscow abandoned any desire to integrate into Transatlantic structures, which had been the primary motive behind Washington’s Russia policy. Putin drove that point home in his famous remarks at the Munich Security Conference in February 2007. There followed the Russo-Georgian War of August 2008, in which Moscow for the first time demonstrated that it was prepared to use force to resist US encroachments, through NATO expansion, into what it considered its “zone of privileged interests.” Washington saw that war as a fundamental violation of the rules that had governed security relations in Europe since at least the Helsinki Accords of 1975.

“Relations never really recovered. The reset was a brief interlude of limited achievement brought to a definitive end on a specific date: September 24, 2011, when Putin announced his determination to return to the Kremlin as President. Thereafter, a cascade of events only deepened the estrangement …

“…The return of Putin was a turning point for the Obama administration because it had wagered on Medvedev’s serving a second term. Putin’s return came as a shock and spelled an end to the reset. But, as I said, the problems in relations go back much further and they concern fundamental questions of world order, not personalities. For that reason, they will continue no matter who the next president of the United States is. Better relations will come when world developments convince both sides that they need to work together to advance their respective national interests. When that moment comes, it will make little difference to the American president if Putin is Russian president or not. He will deal with the Russian president, whoever that might be.”

But is Graham’s final conclusion correct in respect to the breach continuing? There may be reason to be more optimistic. Graham points to the particular ‘baggage’ that encumbers the present US Administration – that it had bet wholly on Medvedev – which is to say, that it had put its eggs into a single basket: that in the American view, Russia ultimately – inevitably – would be forced to follow an Atlanticist orientation and accept integration into a US managed, financial and political, hegemony. (America, of course, has made a similar wager on Iran, which may equally meet with disappointment.)

But the flaw here was to view President Putin was some sort of “retrograde” with his back pointedly turned to the tide of history converging on western values (or the ‘end of history’ as it was perceived by much of the American élite). The US Administration has been unable to perceive President Putin in any other light than as an obstreperous individual who happened to be leader of Russia, rather than as a leader who has emerged out from different and equally authentic orientations and visions contending within Russia.

A new US President however may well not wish to inherit this particular baggage on assuming office. Trump, for instance has called Russian president Vladimir Putin “a bright and talented person” with whom he would “get along very well”. Indeed, what is particularly interesting about the US Presidential election campaign is that all the assumptions made about how the ‘world order’ should be seen in Washington (mentioned by Graham) are being questioned at the very heart of the system — the ‘American 21st Century, America as ‘benign hegemon’, interventionism, ‘the wars’ — even NATO’s relevance.

Earlier in the interview Graham states that in his opinion, “true statesmen would find a way to restore relations. And a country that felt itself strong would be prepared to take the initiative because, confident of its power and capabilities, it would not care about “saving face”” But the question is, will the US recognize such an initiative when it hears it: “We understand that what we have managed to achieve on Syria has only been possible thanks to the constructive position of the political leadership in the US, the position of President Obama”? We shall see.

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