So what does Putin want? His recent speech to the UN General Assembly listed all his main desiderata, from the macro to the micro. He wants a new system of security for Europe modeled on the Yalta Agreement of 1945; a Yalta II. Yalta I was of course the agreement that codified Stalin's control of Eastern Europe, with nasty consequences for many of its inhabitants. Putin has also spoken of a 'greater Europe' from 'Lisbon to Vladivostok' and perhaps involving a German-led EU. Moscow sees Berlin as Europe's natural leader, one that is relatively compliant, and where Moscow can hope to recruit high-level supporters like former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Then there is Putin's 'Eurasian Union', led by Russia.
This goal clearly implies another: to get the US out of Europe, where, for Putin, it has no place.
Putin told a former Secretary General of NATO that he wants to see the alliance abolished. Given his claim that Russia represents a threat to no-one other than terrorists and that the Warsaw Pact was disbanded voluntarily (in fact it was not a voluntary pact and it collapsed), for him NATO has no right to exist. This ignores the fact that the reason for NATO was not the Warsaw Pact but Russia itself; and that some of Russia's neighbours are not convinced by Moscow's argument that history is a poor guide to its behaviour and that they would still be safe even without NATO. It is Russia's task to persuade them. But the Russian ambassador to Stockholm's threat that Sweden would be targeted by Russian missiles if it joined NATO suggests that oderint dum metuant remains the motto of the Russian Foreign Ministry ('let them hate me so that they will but fear me').
In the meantime, Putin asserts he wants a 'normalisation of Euro-Atlantic relations'. That is Kremlin-speak for recognition that Crimea is part of Russia. It also means a guarantee that Ukraine will be 'neutral' and adopt a federal structure that would give its eastern provinces a special status. The irony is that this would look like a genuine federation, unlike Russia where all real power resides in the presidential office and administration. This arrangement would cement Ukraine's partition into two entities, one of them in effect a Russian protectorate, like Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Putin's conditions would doubtless include relegating to history the downing of MH17, with no legal proceedings against those responsible.
Most of all, he wants economic sanctions lifted.
The sanctions are a key concern driving Putin's resort to the classic Soviet tactic of a peace offensive. This involves giving the Russian leadership a media make-over as newly minted moderates in a mood for compromise and willing to be flexible and reasonable. Propaganda outlets have reduced references to NATO and moderated the tone of their anti-American rhetoric. Ukraine has virtually disappeared from Russian television, to be replaced by Syria. Russia's ambassadors to the Nordics have presumably been told to watch their language.
At the same time, there are hints of a mini-thaw at home, signaled by the abrupt re-emergence in the Russian state-controlled media of Putin's docile prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev. After being almost invisible since 2012, he was recently shown pumping iron with Putin. Then came an article under his name setting out a program of economic reform, followed by reports of him chairing a committee on human rights. Medvedev has a reputation inside and outside Russia as a moderate, and his popping up again is a sign that Putin is, in Europe at least, momentarily on the peace path.
This then is the wider context in which Putin's Syrian gambit should be viewed. He is offering a deal: accept my conditions for a 'normalisation of Euro-Atlantic relations' and I will help you to extricate yourselves from the Middle Eastern quagmire you have created, thereby helping the EU to stem the tide of refugees that threatens to overwhelm it. His Syrian expedition is far more than a Xiang Zhuang sabre dance but it is usefully diverting attention from Crimea and Ukraine. And he is demonstrating yet again to his people that their resolute warrior chieftain is baffling their foes.
This all amounts to an impressive strategy. But it is fraught with risks. A large one is that, at some stage in the course of Putin's Syria campaign, the three states with the capacity to cause Russia real difficulty if incited into active hostility may be provoked into doing so: Sunni Saudi Arabia, anti-Iranian Israel, and Sunni Turkey (whose Assad-hating leader Erdogan is already fingering the hilt of his scimitar over Russia’s ill treatment of the Crimean Tatars).
Second, most of Russia's own Muslims are Sunni. They account for 16-18% of Russia’s population and that proportion is rising fast. Putin's tactics to deal with his Muslim problem – giving autonomy to the Volga Tatars and to the Chechens in return for fealty; placing Russia's other Caucasus territories under what is in effect martial law; building Europe's biggest mosque in Moscow and maintaining a stable of well-paid loyal muftis – have not solved it. This latest gamble risks making it worse, not just by inciting the hostility of global jihadists but internal opponents too.
But the greatest immediate risk is of a direct encounter between Russian and US aircraft — that is, a great-power military confrontation. US and Russian military planners will both be acutely aware of that contingency and it is to be hoped, though not assumed, that they will do all they can to avoid it.
But Putin appears bent on helping Assad and his Shia allies Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah, as well as some Syrian Kurds, to crush the Sunnis in Syria. And this arms-length confrontation comes at a time when US-Russia relations are as bad as at any time in the Cold War. In fact, in one important way they are worse: there is enmity and no trust whatsoever on either side. In the Cold War, the Russians had the likes of Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and Brezhnev's advisor on the US, Georgi Arbatov, both of whom were trusted by the Americans, just as US arms control chief Paul Nitze was trusted by the Russians. These back channels led to formalised modes of communication such as the so-called Hot Line.
Khrushchev is reliably reported to have wept when he heard of the assassination of John Kennedy, while Gorbachev and Reagan grew to respect each other. Nothing of that sort is visible today.
Photo by Flickr user Lazopoulos George.