Kremlin Relishes Syria,Ukraine Turmoil 10/13 10:16
From Syria to Ukraine, new fault lines and tensions are offering the Kremlin
fresh opportunities to expand its clout and advance its interests.
MOSCOW (AP) -- From Syria to Ukraine, new fault lines and tensions are
offering the Kremlin fresh opportunities to expand its clout and advance its
In Syria, the U.S. military withdrawal in the face of a Turkish offensive
leaves Russia as the ultimate power broker, allowing it to help negotiate a
potential agreement between Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Kurds who
were abandoned by Washington.
And in Ukraine, where the new president saw his image dented by a U.S.
impeachment inquiry, Russia may use the volatility to push for a deal that
would secure its leverage over its western neighbor.
The Turkish offensive in northern Syria followed President Donald Trump's
decision to withdraw U.S. forces from the area, cold shouldering the
Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, the key U.S. ally in the fight against
the Islamic State group.
Washington's abrupt decision to ditch the Kurds contrasted sharply with
Moscow's unwavering support for its ally Assad, which helped his government
reclaim the bulk of the country's territory in a devastating civil war.
Along with military power, Russian President Vladimir Putin has relied on
diplomacy to achieve his goals in Syria, reaching out to regional powers ---
from Iran to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey.
NATO member Turkey has become a particularly important partner for Russia.
Even though the two countries have backed opposite sides in the Syrian
conflict, they have pooled efforts to negotiate a de-escalation zone in the
Syrian province of Idlib and co-sponsor talks on forming a committee that would
draft a new Syrian constitution.
The Russia-Turkey rapprochement came as Ankara's relations with Washington
grew increasingly chilly and were further strained over Turkey's recent
purchase of Russian air defense missiles.
Turkey's offensive in Syria, which has drawn harsh criticism from the U.S.
and European Union, may now push Moscow and Ankara even closer.
"Russia wants to benefit from that operation, and one of the gains could be
the strengthening of ties with Turkey," said Kirill Semenov of the Russian
International Affairs Council. "The harsh response from Washington, the EU
reaction, the threat of sanctions against Turkey all play into Moscow's hands
by making Moscow and Ankara even closer."
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Putin just before unleashing
air strikes and an artillery barrage on Kurdish-controlled areas in Syria.
Ankara charges that the Kurdish fighters in Syria are allied with the outlawed
Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has led an insurgency against Turkey
for 35 years.
While Russia has noted the need to respect Syria's territorial integrity, it
also has emphasized Turkey's right to ensure its security --- a benevolent
stance contrasting with the harsh Western criticism of the Turkish offensive.
Russia has long urged the U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters in Syria to come back
to Damascus' fold, an offer they may need to take more seriously now.
"We heard that both Syrian officials and representatives of Kurdish
organizations expressed interest in Russia using its good relations with all
parties to the process in arranging such talks," Russian Foreign Minister
Sergey Lavrov told reporters on Thursday. "We will see what we can do."
Lavrov also pointed at another Moscow goal --- brokering a dialogue between
Turkey and Assad's government, something Ankara has strongly rejected in the
"It would be good for Russia to bring Ankara and Damascus to the table and
have Ankara acknowledge the legitimacy of the regime in Damascus, if not Assad
himself," Semenov said.
In another power game, Russia hopes to see major gains in its long-running
effort to retain leverage over its neighbor Ukraine, a former Soviet republic
looking to align itself with the West. In 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine's
Crimean Peninsula and threw its support behind a separatist insurgency in
eastern Ukraine following the ouster of Ukraine's Moscow-friendly leader, moves
that triggered bruising Western sanctions.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who was elected by a landslide in April, has
vowed to end the fighting, which has killed more than 13,000. Early this month,
Ukraine, Russia and the rebels signed a tentative agreement to hold local
elections in the east, a deal Zelenskiy insists conforms to a 2015 peace accord
that was brokered by France and Germany.
The agreement, however, has been criticized by some in Ukraine as
"capitulation" to Moscow. On Monday, far-right and nationalist groups are
staging a major rally in Kyiv to protest Zelenskiy's peace plan.
The Ukrainian president has been drawn into the political furor in the
United States, where Democrats in Congress are conducting an impeachment
inquiry triggered by his telephone conversation with Trump. In the July 25
call, Trump pushed him to open a corruption investigation into Democratic rival
Joe Biden and his son. In the days before the call, Trump ordered a freeze on
hundreds of millions of dollars in badly needed U.S. military aid. After a
congressional uproar, the aid was released in September.
Zelenskiy has denied being pressured by Trump, but this past week he
encouraged U.S. and Ukrainian prosecutors to discuss investigating a gas
company linked to Biden's son, although no one has produced evidence of
criminal wrongdoing by either Biden.
The White House's publication of a rough transcript of the call was
embarrassing for the 41-year-old Ukrainian president because it showed him
eager to please Trump and dismissive of European partners whose support he
needs to end the conflict in the east. While Zelenskiy sought to play it down,
it could help Russia by eroding support for Ukraine in Germany and France.
"France and Germany have grown tired of Ukraine and are too busy with their
own problems, and their only goal is to close the issue of the war in the east
by any means," said Vadim Karasev, head of the Institute of Global Strategies,
an independent Kyiv-based think tank. "If Russia offers a compromise, Berlin
and Paris will heave a sigh of relief. By publicly kicking (German Chancellor
Angela) Merkel and (French President Emmanuel) Macron, Zelenskiy untied their
hands and there is no more talk about their 'friendly support.'"
In June, France helped Russia's delegation restore its credentials at the
Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, five years after it was
stripped of voting rights following the annexation of Crimea. Macron has also
spoken about the prospect of Russia's eventual return to the Group of Seven,
from which it was purged after annexing Crimea.
"Russia is the main beneficiary of that situation," Karasev said. "Putin no
longer has to prove that Ukraine is dangerous and toxic --- Ukrainian and U.S.
politicians have done the job for him. The Kremlin now just needs to wait until
the Ukrainian apple falls into its lap, as the U.S., Germany and France all
have got their share of toxic Ukrainian gifts and got poisoned."