BERLIN – After the Islamic State attack on Paris, there are signs of a rapprochement between Western countries and President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Putin’s peace offerings are more style than substance, however.
The West is making tentative steps toward uniting with Russia against Islamic State. French President Francois Hollande, who said a month ago that Putin “is not our ally” in Syria, has promised to talk to U.S. President Barack Obama as well as to Putin “to unite our forces.” Obama spoke one on one with Putin for more than 30 minutes at the G-20 summit in Istanbul, a change to the usual practice of mutual avoidance.
Western openness to a “grand coalition” against Islamic State doesn’t mean it will happen, though; there are still plenty of political differences to resolve and roles in the conflict to divide once that’s done. Nor has Putin given ground on Ukraine. For about six weeks, the conflict zone was quiet; Putin had apparently leaned on the pro-Russian insurgents to cease fire as the Russian air force started bombing Syria. In November, however, the Ukrainian military usually reports several deaths a day. On Sunday, for example, three Ukrainian soldiers were reported killed.
A political resolution is no nearer: The Ukrainian Parliament is only now beginning to mull a special election law for the rebel-held territories that it would need to pass to start the reintegration process. Putin is not about to reduce pressure on Kiev until he’s satisfied the political process favors him and his proxies. A debt-restructuring proposal made by Moscow isn’t much of a carrot, either. Putin is willing to let Ukraine pay the $3 billion it owes Russia in three equal annual installments, starting in 2016, but only if Ukraine’s Western allies — the U.S., the European Union or the international financial institutions — guarantee repayment.
Here’s how he frames it: “If indeed our partners believe Ukraine’s creditworthiness will grow and they would convince us of it, that means they believe it, and if they believe it, let them put up guarantees. And if they are unable to put up guarantees, that means they don’t believe in the Ukrainian economy’s future. That would be bad for them, I think, because they’d be convincing us of something that isn’t true, and it would also be bad for our Ukrainian partners.”
The restructuring offer, especially with the demand for guarantees, is far better for Russia than the deal private investors struck with Ukraine. Ukraine, however, is bound by the terms of that deal not to offer better terms to anyone — or to compensate investors if it does. So it’s unclear how an agreement can be reached before Putin’s Dec. 6 deadline.
The offer is primarily a propaganda move, meant to show that the West itself is uncertain that its aid to Ukraine is going to help the corruption-ridden country. Besides, Putin isn’t giving anything up except the nebulous opportunity of recovering the debt through the courts: The International Monetary Fund has already said it would keep lending to Ukraine even if it defaults on the $3 billion. Simply watching Ukraine default, as it almost certainly intended to do, would be a waste; this way Putin would reap political dividends on a failed economic investment.
Western leaders have repeatedly made it clear to Putin they wouldn’t trade concessions on Ukraine for his support in Syria. Putin, too, is unwilling to give up his ability to destabilize Ukraine for a chance to partner with the U.S. and its allies in Syria. He’s not interested in buying a ticket to a war he’s already involved in at considerable risk.
It would be a mistake to portray Putin’s effort in Syria as an attempt to get back into the West’s good graces, win forgiveness for his Ukraine aggression and prevent a prolongation of European economic sanctions, which run out at the end of January. He has said more than once that he considers Islamic State a threat to Russia. On Tuesday, Russia’s Federal Security Service declared that the explosion of a Russian airliner over Egypt last month was the result of a terrorist attack. Putin promised to catch those responsible “everywhere, anywhere they might be hiding.”
The statement echoes his September 1999 promise to “pursue terrorists everywhere, and if we catch them in the toilet, we’ll ice them in the toilet.” Putin said that as he was starting Russia’s second war on Islamist separatists in Chechnya, which he ultimately won by picking a ruthless local leader to run the rebellious region for him.
Given that experience, Putin considers himself a better expert on fighting terrorism than any of the current global leaders. What he wants is to lead the anti-Islamic State coalition and for everyone to admit he had been right in supporting Assad’s government to counterbalance the threat.
“We did offer cooperation against ISIS. Unfortunately, our partners in the United States initially rejected our offer. They just sent us a written note, and it says: ‘We decline your proposal.’ But indeed, life goes very quickly and it often teaches us lessons. And it seems to me that now, finally, the realization is coming to everyone that only all of us together can fight effectively.”
A Western alliance with Putin against Islamic State, if it ever happens, won’t be much more than a situational military alliance. There will be no political detente; Western leaders were willing to talk to Josef Stalin as they fought World War II together, but the Cold War followed almost immediately afterward.
Putin, who upheld the anti-Hitler coalition as an example for the kind of anti-IS alliance he wants, knows all the implications. He’s not in it for the cancelation of sanctions. He wants to win the war and to be acknowledged as the leader who brought about victory. In that sense, the recent terror attacks haven’t changed much: The West still has to decide whether to ally itself with a lesser evil to defeat a bigger one.
Berlin-based writer Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist.
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