PARIS — Friday’s terror attacks in Paris have unexpectedly opened the door for Vladimir Putin to go from international pariah to a convenient partner in Syria.
A month after claiming that Putin “is not our ally,” François Hollande, France’s president, is to visit Moscow next week to discuss a “large coalition” against ISIS. Putin has responded in kind, telling Russian naval commanders on live TV to “to establish direct contact with the French and work with them as allies.” Barack Obama, too, has sounded conciliatory notes in recent days; at last week’s G20 summit, he met with a man whom he spent the better part of two years awkwardly avoiding, like after a bad breakup.
Already, Moscow is heralding the abrupt about-face as a sign Putin is coming in from the cold after years of isolation over the war in Ukraine and his support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. “Level-headed politicians are dropping secondary issues and realizing the need to concentrate on the biggest issue at hand: stopping ISIS’ attempts to spread influence globally,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Thursday. Georgy Bovt, a columnist for the pro-Kremlin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, was more blunt. “The minute a real tragedy hits Europe,” he wrote, “they remember those awful Russians, regardless of who the tsar is — Stalin or Putin.”
The apparent rapprochement between Russia and the West will have consequences — foremost for ISIS. This week, the nascent terror state found itself the target of a serious aerial bombardment for the first time in Moscow’s two-month campaign after Russia previously focused on other, mostly Western-backed groups fighting Assad. The West and Russia appear to have made small steps in bridging the vast chasm between their positions on Assad after agreeing a new transition plan in Vienna last week. Russian officials often telegraph that they hope to swap cooperation on Syria for a ceding to Russia’s interests in Ukraine, and the end of Western sanctions on Moscow for its involvement there.
The differences, however, remain considerable. Obama spoke Wednesday of the need for a “pivot in the minds of the Russians and the Iranians” to recognize their military support for Assad is futile; Lavrov said he thought the U.S. had “started to realize the pointlessness” of their insistence that he cede power. Behind closed doors, Western countries and Saudi Arabia are trying to draw a wedge between Moscow and Tehran over Syria’s president, according to the Wall Street Journal.
“The distance between France and Russia is probably as large as it was one week ago,” said Bruno Tertrins, a former French defense ministry advisor and fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “The fact that France is emphasizing the Islamic State priority does not mean at all that it has moved closer to Bashar al-Assad.”
With no major movement on the issue of Assad, Putin’s turn on ISIS seems motivated more by the attack on the Russian civilian air jet that blew up over northern Egypt last month. ISIS claimed in the latest issue of its English-language magazine that it had originally planned to bomb a Western jet, but changed its plans after Russia’s campaign. Despite strong suggestions the plane was brought down by a bomb, Russia delayed naming a culprit until Tuesday — after which it strained to equate the downing to the Paris attacks. Russia’s foreign ministry created a flag emblem meant to mimic the French flag icon widely adopted on Facebook. Several Russian socialites found themselves the targets of a media campaign for having posted condolence messages to Paris, while neglecting to commemorate the earlier Egyptian bombing. After Putin vowed vengeance on ISIS for the bombing, LifeNews, a tabloid-style TV channel, published a video of what appeared to be the detritus, filmed weeks earlier at the crash site — but presumably withheld at the behest of the Russian security services with whom it boasts of close contacts.
“Recognizing that the explosion was a terrorist attack at the time could and undoubtedly would have been understood as punishment for the Syrian invasion,” former Kremlin spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky told Ekho Moskvy radio. “The horrible events in Paris solved the problem. In some sense they allowed all of this to be lumped together.”
The blowback from Syria is a tough milestone for Moscow in a campaign that was always more about its own place in the world than events on the ground. Its official rhetoric draws heavily on the spin of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, with the defense ministry giving shock-and-awe briefings in a Dr. Strangelove-style war room. State TV frames Putin’s diplomatic efforts as confirmation of his own personal superpowerness, and sends the same war reporters who warned of “fascists” in Ukraine to warn of the terrorist threat from Syria. Not for the first time, Russia’s propaganda machine has willed something into being — only now, with the unexpected apparent consequence of the deaths of all 224 aboard the flight from Sharm el-Sheikh.
That campaign seems to have done little to bring those goals closer. The U.S. and EU, according to the WSJ, are planning to extend sanctions over eastern Ukraine, which saw its worst violence in months last weekend. The impact on the ground in Syria has also been limited: Assad seems neither in imminent danger of falling, nor significantly bolstered by Russia’s air support. “The Russians signed up for a military campaign in Syria on a fairly spur-of-the-moment basis,” said Andrew Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “How well did they understand what they were walking into?”