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Syria: Russia’s ticket back to the table?

Once again, Russia is re-positioning its role on the global stage, rather than falling back into the character of rogue state. But whether the West is willing to applaud its new starring part remains to be seen.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's speech on Monday night at the United Nations (UN) could soon be seen as a turning point in the gradual defrosting of Russia's relations with the West after the turmoil of the last two years – which saw Moscow sending military aid to rebels in Ukraine, and Europe and the U.S imposing swingeing sanctions.

Putin himself appears to have put Ukraine on the back burner, if his speech at the UN, which focused much more on the Middle East than, is to be believed. He used the opportunity to attack Western policy in the region, saying: "Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty and social disaster — and nobody cares a bit about human rights, including the right to life.

"I cannot help asking those who have forced that situation: Do you realize what you have done?"

Awkward relations

Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images News | Getty Images

His invitation to the West to eat humble pie is unlikely to be easily digested, however. Pictures of Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama from the UN, show the kind of frosty looks over chinking champagne glasses usually reserved for relations who have fallen out decades before and are forced together at a family wedding.

Putin compared his proposed "anti-ISIS coalition" to the "anti-Hitler coalition" of Russia, the U.K. and U.S. during the Second World War, which should play well at home.

"Russian state media is now trying to depict him as something akin to a global saviour in the battle against ISIS," Daragh McDowell, principal analyst, Europe and Central Asia at Verisk Maplecroft, wrote in a research note. "Of course, the real issue is how the Russian public reacts if/when Russian forces in Syria experience combat losses."


Help or hindrance?

Still, Putin appears to have successfully refocused the conversation towards how Russia might help rather than how it can hinder elsewhere.

"The primary new element was the emphasis on Syria, where Russia hopes to position itself as a world player," according to Otilia Dhand, senior vice president at Teneo Intelligence.

"The Kremlin will use the opportunity to show that it is better to cooperate with Russia than to oppose it."


This may just be because there is much more likelihood of common ground over Syria than Ukraine. However, there does seem to be reduced military activity in Ukraine, particularly in Donbass, the region which has been the focal point for much of the discontent with the Ukrainian government by Russia-backed separatists.

Reaction time

The Putin perspective appears to be that, with the formation of new economic alliances like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the U.S. and Europe, Russia has to look out for its own national interests.

The re-expansion of Russia's sphere of influence, in this interpretation, is a reaction rather than aggression.

Putin may also feel as though the conflict in Ukraine has done enough to destabilize the Ukrainian government he finds so objectionable. Reforms appear to be stalling, living standards are still poor, and non-governmental parties are polling better ahead of October elections.

"The consensus (among Western and Ukrainian diplomats) is thus that while his tactics might have changed, his ultimate strategic objectives have not," Timothy Ash, head of CEEMEA strategy at Nomura, wrote in a research note.