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Analysis: Putin Takes Center Stage At UN, In Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meets with his U.S, counterpart Barack Obama at the UN in New York on September 28.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meets with his U.S, counterpart Barack Obama at the UN in New York on September 28.

As their wineglasses touch, Barack Obama regards Vladimir Putin with a look that conveys wariness, worry, perhaps disdain. Looking back at Obama, Putin wears a smile that seems to say, 'Yeah, what are you gonna do about it?"

Every picture tells a story. The tale spun by a prominent image making the rounds after Putin's first appearance at the UN General Assembly in a decade goes something like this: The Russian president may not have gotten everything he wanted, but he can tick a few big boxes on his New York to-do list.

That includes the one marked 'steal the spotlight.'

With world powers enraged by Russia's intervention in Ukraine last year and concerned about its military buildup in Syria, a crowd-pleasing script for Putin's appearance might have cast him in the role of a pariah.

Instead, Putin was the undeniable center of attention, thanks to those same concerns and to a stage-setting PR push. The propaganda campaign featured an interview with Charlie Rose of CBS and an announcement, just a day before Putin addressed the General Assembly and met with Obama, that Russian military officials were working with counterparts from Iran, Syria, and Iraq on intelligence and security cooperation to counter the militant group Islamic State (IS).

Putin's goals were amply telegraphed ahead of his trip, alongside flights and shipments that have built Moscow's military presence in Syria into one of its biggest deployments outside the former Soviet Union since that country's 1991 demise. After the General Assembly ends, the goals will presumably remain.

More Muscular Role

The most ambitious appears to be to use the war in Syria and the threat from IS to place Russia at the heart of a grand coalition against extremism -- and the Kremlin's long-held dream of a new global security architecture. At the same time, Putin may hope global cooperation against a common foe would draw Western attention away from Ukraine, prompting an end to sanctions imposed on Russia over its seizure of Crimea and support for separatists in the Donbas.

Neither of those things has happened. In his speech, U.S. President Barack Obama made clear that the United States finds Russia's condition for a coalition against IS -- that it include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government -- extremely hard to stomach. There is also little sign of sanctions over Ukraine ending soon.

What Putin does seem to have gained, however, is a louder voice in discussions of the fight against IS and a more muscular role in Syria.

There is room for Moscow and Washington to cooperate more closely against the militant group if they can bridge the still-gaping rift over Assad, who the United States says must go in a political transition but Putin has talked up as a crucial ally in the fight with IS.

Many in the West suspect that Putin's real aim in Syria is not to fight IS, but to prop up Assad's government, and make sure Moscow is not cut out of Syria's future if things go from bad to worse for his government.

Russia's military buildup could help achieve that goal. It also puts Moscow in a stronger position to influence the outcome of negotiations on a political transition in Syria if Assad is finally pushed out -- something the Kremlin has appeared to have in mind throughout the war. Keeping its options open, Russia has never insisted that Assad must remain in power, only that his exit cannot be a precondition for a political settlement.

Putin's gains have come at a small price, so far.

In remarks after his meeting with Obama, Putin ruled out sending ground troops into Syria -- though in the Charlie Rose interview, recorded a few days earlier, he added a qualifier: "At least, we do not plan it for now."

That sounds like Putin at his most pragmatic.

For weeks, Russian state TV has been shifting the focus from Ukraine to Syria, just as the Kremlin has tried to do for a global audience. But an opinion poll published the day Putin spoke at the UN showed that he will have to think hard before getting more deeply involved the Syrian civil war.

The survey by Moscow-based pollster Levada Center found that 69 percent of Russians oppose deploying troops to help Assad's government.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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