IS heat helps thaw between Russia and West

  • Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Hindustan Times, New York
  • Updated: Nov 18, 2015 22:19 IST
US President Barack Obama, talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin prior to a session of the G-20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey. (AP Photo)

Moscow is coming in from the cold because Paris is burning. A geopolitical side story to the West’s security focus on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is that Russia is shedding its pariah status.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his French counterpart Francoise Hollande were quick to agree to coordinate their separate airstrikes in Syria. The two countries plan to do the same for their warships in the eastern Mediterranean.

US President Barack Obama too announced on Wednesday he is prepared to cooperate with Russia over Syria. Hollande will be meeting both Obama and Putin in their respective capitals next week to urge them to set aside their differences.

The Russian stock market rose and Western investors began speculating that sanctions imposed by the West on Russia for its annexation of parts of eastern Ukraine would ease.

However, even the carnage in Paris will only begin a rapprochement process. Its future trajectory will depend on other events.

The first test will be Syria. The US and the European powers earlier accused Russia of targeting airstrikes against non-IS rebels in Syria. The Pentagon has said more recent Russian strikes have shifted to IS-held centres like Raqqa. But Obama warned he would wait to see if Russian military action held to that pattern.

Given the IS has claimed responsibility for downing a Russian airliner over Sinai, Putin has every incentive to keep the group in his sights.

The second test will be how well the recent US-Russian framework peace agreement for Syria will fare. Washington will wait to see if Moscow is genuinely interested in a Syrian solution or only in preserving the Bashar al Assad regime – a regime that the West opposes.

Moscow, in turn, will watch to see if a lame duck Obama has the political capital to persuade regional players to implement the agreement. Both seem doubtful.

The third test, which is arguably Putin’s main goal, will be whether the West will ease economic sanctions.

Even in the most optimistic scenario, this could take a year or more. Only last month the European Union extended its sanctions on Russia until March 2016 and the US added 29 more Russian institutions and individuals to its sanctions list.

Neither side can roll back their position on the Ukrainian issue. Obama and Putin did agree to work together to restructure Ukrainian debt at the recent G20 Summit, but this is a small step.

French officials have reportedly said Hollande will not offer or accept a quid pro quo on Syria versus Ukraine when he meets Putin next week.

Economic sanctions, once imposed, are among the most difficult diplomatic actions to reverse. Moscow understands that. It also knows, however, that such sanctions will become increasingly unviable if political and military cooperation reaches a sustained and high level running. The present bonhomie will first have to survive a Paris returning to normal.

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