MOSCOW — Is Russian President Vladimir Putin launching a charm offensive that promises real breakthroughs, or just repackaging long-held objectives? With the Kremlin’s system of signals it’s sometimes hard to tell. But in a matter of days he delivered two significant statements, one from Crimea, the region annexed by Russia in March last year, the other from Tajikistan, a country in Central Asia troubled both by ISIS and insurgents who feed off the Afghan heroin traffic. And there are hints of more changes behind the scenes.
Moscow think tanks believe the carefully planned and staged remarks were meant to send two important signals to the West before Putin’s meetings at the United Nations General Assembly later this month: First, he is ready to freeze the war in Eastern Ukraine, and secondly, he wants to join the West in the fight against ISIS, the so-called Islamic State, in Syria.
On Saturday a week ago, the Russian president showed up in the Black Sea resort city of Yalta, on the Crimean peninsula, where pro-Kremlin activists painted large, colorful murals on the walls, depicting Putin as a sea captain at a ship’s wheel. In person, Putin wore decidedly casual attire: a short-sleeve white shirt and loose light-blue jeans. He strolled next to former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, famous in his home country for endless scandals, but in Russia known for being Putin’s best European friend and lobbyist.
The two posed for photographs and hugged little girls when what local news reports described as a “random pedestrian” approached them. The man asked Putin when the leader would go ahead and turn Donbas, as eastern Ukraine is called, into a part of Russia, as happened with Crimea.
Putin answered the man’s question in a long statement, insisting that the only path to regulating the crisis lay in the existing Minsk agreements between Moscow and Kiev.
“The scene was staged for Putin in Crimea to convey a message that the peace deal with Ukraine can work, if the West deals with him in Syria and forgets about Crimea annexation,” Stanislav Belkovsky, a former adviser to the Kremlin, said in an interview with The Daily Beast.
That was not only Belkovsky’s view. “Putin signaled from Crimea that he wants to end the war in Donbas on the basis of the Minsk-2 ceasefire,” says Vasily Kashin at CAST, the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. “That would translate into two words: ‘Russia won.’”
Kashin said that ideally, for Russia, the disputed territory would gradually become a region on the Russian border similar to Transnistria in Moldova, which is under Moscow’s domination but not part of Russia. Such a frank appraisal from CAST is significant since it has been a member of the Public Council under Russian Defense Ministry for over a decade.
After Crimea, this tentative trickle of signals turned into a small torrent of news.
Putin arrived in Tajikistan, where local law enforcement is pursuing an army general accused of launching an insurgency and taking the lives of nine police officers.
Speaking on Tuesday with his allies—leaders of Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan—Putin talked about the international war on ISIS: "Simple common sense and responsibility for global and regional safety require uniting the efforts of the international community to fight such a threat,” he said.
“It is necessary,” the Russian president said, “to set aside geopolitical ambitions, drop so-called double standards, the policy of direct or indirect use of separate terrorist groups for achieving one’s own goals, including removing the governments and regimes.”
Under Putin’s plan, both Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and his opposition should join their forces against ISIS, and Russia would send them weapons and military support.
Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter had a “constructive” conversation about the situations in Syria and Iraq with Russian Minister of Defense Seregei Shoygu. According to a Sunday report by the German newspapers Bild am Sonntag, CIA representatives visited Moscow last week to have negotiations with Russian counter-intelligence.
“This is not an accident that after Crimea Putin sent one more messages to the West from Central Asia, where there is a high risk of ISIS blowing up on one more front,” Kashin told The Daily Beast. “If a large-scale war begins in Central Asia, Russia would definitely have to get involved. In the best scenario, that would be together with China, and in the worst alone; so Putin means to say that he would much rather crush ISIS in Syria by pumping up Assad’s and Iraq’s armies with weapons, than to have a massive war in Central Asia.”
This comes at a time when fighting actually has calmed down on the front lines of Donbas. OSCE Secretary General Zaberto Zannier reports that the ceasefire has not been violated in more than two weeks. “I have visited Mariupol and Shirokino, it’s been quiet there—this is a good news,” Zannier said at YES, a conference once known as the Yalta European Strategy meeting, an annual event now taking place in Kiev.
Both Kiev and Moscow wished for the Minsk ceasefire deal to work out, except that both sides saw the peaceful future happening under very different contexts. “Putin offers Donbas peace on his conditions, in exchange for the West easing economic sanctions and forgiving him the annexation of Crimea,” says Timur Olevsky, a commentator on TV Rain.
The sudden change sounded confusing for some Russian nationalists and Putin loyalists. After more than two years of intense anti-American diatribes, it was hard for Putin’s propagandists to shift gears; the Kremlin’s machine could not spin around overnight and suddenly grow friendlier to United States.
So, while Putin was making his speeches in Crimea and Tajikistan, Russian authorities closed down the 22-year-old American cultural center in Moscow. And activists of the ruling party, United Russia, as well as Russian nationalists, continued to blame Putin’s opposition for being U.S. State Department agents, hired to launch a revolution.
Pro-Kremlin experts believe that participation in the Syria war is a chance for Putin to rehabilitate himself in Western eyes and enhance his importance. “Syria is like a poker table for the Great Game players to win more political points,” says Yuriy Krupnov, an analyst close to the Kremlin. “Russia’s efforts to join the West in the war with ISIS can be seen as a weak move. Russia is going to send military support to Assad and not to the U.S. forces, I cannot see how the West would accept that compromise.”
It may well be that no matter how carefully Putin has set the stage for his visit to the United Nations, it will all come to naught. Or worse.
“Coming to the UN, Putin seeks the West’s appreciation for his efforts to fight against the Islamic State,” says Belkovsky. “He dreams of meeting with Obama—Putin secretly adores Obama—and for the sake of that meeting, he temporarily freezes the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. But if the UN members mistreat him, which is a very likely, the conflict will burn again.”