October 12, 2015
Only hours after having delivered clashing remarks, Presidents Obama and Putin met on the sidelines of the 70th United Nations General Assembly. This was on September 27 and their first meeting in two years. Within a span of two weeks, however, relations appear to be further strained as result of Russian intervention in Syria. For someone who has put faith in the wisdom of US-Russia cooperation this is a disappointment.
Looking back at the two centuries long decline of the Ottoman Empire I can understand what a shock it must have been to the Russian people to see the Soviet Union disappear in less than two decades. There are still those in Turkey who yearn for our Ottoman past and entertain empty dreams of reviving it only to jeopardize our internal peace and security. Thus, to a certain extent, I can appreciate Russia’s difficulty to instantly make peace with the new state of affairs with a good number of former soviet republics having crossed over to the “other side” in exercising, what was in the final analysis, their indisputable right under international law. During the years of waning Russian power, the Western countries lectured Moscow on the merits of democracy and free market. In retrospect, they probably could and should have done more to prevent the frustration arising from the loss of the Soviet empire. Eventually, a considerable level of mutual economic interdependence was achieved between Russia and the EU countries but political engagement with the West remained stagnant.
The Arab Spring seemed to catch everybody by surprise. Good friends of the West suddenly became tyrants/adversaries. The Russians gave the West a chance by not vetoing a United Nations Security Council resolution which aimed at protecting civilians in Libya. This, however, turned into a misguided intervention targeting regime change. As could be expected, the Russians then resisted a similar intervention in Syria, a country with which they have enjoyed a long-standing relationship. Syria’s internal strife soon metamorphosed into proxy wars leading to wider chaos in the Middle East. President Obama was absolutely right to resist calls for another military intervention, but failure to create collective awareness among regional countries on the urgency of the need to contain the conflict only made the situation worse. In June 2014 the Islamic State (ISIL) captured Mosul dealing an almost fatal blow to the decade-long US endeavor to reorganize Iraqi armed forces. ISIL then extended its reach to Syria. The US-led coalition which lacked genuine regional commitment in view of diverse individual agendas and interests failed to degrade and defeat it.
In early 2014 the Ukraine conflict erupted leading to the annexation of Crimea by Russia. This was a violation of international law but with some foresight regarding developments which could follow, the West could have handled the crisis better. The confrontation over Ukraine led to sanctions and counter-sanctions straining relations between Russia and the West. Nevertheless, this did not prevent the Iran nuclear deal from becoming world’s principal collective political/diplomatic accomplishment of the last decade and creating a glimmer of hope for the future.
In the Ukraine and Syrian conflicts President Putin has seized opportunities to challenge and wrong-foot the West. But he has missed a greater opportunity for profound change in Russia’s relations with the US because President Obama’s approach to international problems, from his first day in office, put the emphasis on political/diplomatic engagement and multilateral cooperation. Moscow, as a global power, has undoubtedly given enough proof of its capacity to challenge others. Now, it is time for her to display her capacity as a game changer in achieving political/diplomatic solutions. In spite of the controversy created by her intervention, the Syrian deadlock still presents Russia with such an opportunity.