September 25, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Superpowers Meet Amid Spiraling Crises

• Recent Russian moves in Syria have sparked a geopolitical chain reaction, resulting in a rare planned meeting between Presidents Obama and Putin

• The ongoing fighting in Ukraine and Syria will be the focus of the meeting, which comes at a time when relations between Washington and Moscow are at their lowest point in decades

• EU member states are pushing for Russia to adhere to the roundly-ignored Minsk ceasefire agreement; it is unlikely Putin will make any large concessions, given the extent of his investment in Ukraine’s conflict

• In Syria, Russia’s military buildup in support of the Assad regime has changed the dynamics of the civil war, requiring the U.S. to coordinate at some level with the Russians even while supporting the anti-Assad rebels.


As the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine continue to worsen, they are now bad enough to bring about a rare face-to-face meeting between U.S. President Obama and Russian President Putin. Relations between the U.S. and Russia are nearing the worst of the Cold War years, and the two nations are supporting the opposite sides of two civil wars. For leaders that rarely speak to one another over the phone and even more rarely meet in person (the longest the two have talked in person is 15 minutes in June 2014), the scheduled September 28 meeting in New York is an indication that the status quo is shifting, with unknown repercussions in Europe and the Middle East.

Since Russia forcibly annexed Crimea in March 2014, it has been the target of sanctions imposed by the EU and the United States. The sanctions, while significant, have not resulted in meaningful change on the part of the Russian government. To the contrary, Russia has continued its military support for the ‘separatists’ in eastern Ukraine, though the conflict has killed several thousand and resulted in the worst ground fighting in Europe in decades. EU members have urged Obama to meet with Putin to begin dialogue and hopefully bring about some actual progress towards ending the hostilities. Given how personally invested Putin is in the conflict—his popularity has soared even as the economy has sputtered, thanks to increased anti-Western rhetoric and a resurgence of Russian nationalism—it is unlikely, but still possible, there will be a serious change in Russian behavior within its sphere of influence.

With so many crises clamoring for international attention, it is important to recall just how much the situation has devolved in the past year and a half: a European country saw part of its territory annexed for the first time since World War II; a civilian passenger airliner was shot out of the sky over eastern Ukraine by Russian-supported separatists using a Russia-provided BUK missile system, killing all 298 people on board; and the fighting still continues in a bloody stalemate, with neither side capable of pushing out the other. NATO is increasingly nervous about Russian intentions, as provocative Russian overflights and maneuvers are reminiscent of the 1970s and '80s. While the rhetoric tends to outrace the reality, the reality is that several of the world’s major powers are on a path for confrontation if trends continue.

In Syria, Russia has moved in short notice to increase its military support for the Assad regime. Far more than simply providing weapons and advisors, the Russians intend to conduct airstrikes, ostensibly against the Islamic State but also against other rebel groups it considers to be terrorists. Reports that Russia will set up several military bases around the Assad stronghold of Latikia are further proof of Moscow’s determination to maintain its leverage in Syria. The emerging Russia-Iran-Hizballah-Assad coalition is facing off against a coalition of rebel groups supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the United States, and others. The conflict may be on the precipice of a final push before negotiations; recent local ceasefires prove that dialogue between even the rebels and Assad is possible at some level. Alternatively, the situation could worsen as both sides, flush with foreign arms, try their luck at an all-out victory.

The planned meeting between Presidents Obama and Putin will not in itself result in peace in either Syria or Ukraine, but it is an important and necessary step towards resolving the conflicts. There will need to be more frequent meetings between the two leaders—that last more than fifteen minutes—in order to push through the many roadblocks ahead.


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