Putin deepens Russia’s role in the ME

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Tracy Wilkinson, Brian Bennet

VLADIMIR Putin is the man to watch on the global stage these days, the assertive Russian president who casts himself as a peacemaker even as he plays a troublemaker. From cyberspace to the Middle East, he has reset large parts of the international agenda and kept the White House and its allies off balance and often playing catch-up, as he trades compliments with GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Putin “wants to restore Russia’s influence in the world to what it was in the Soviet times,” said Cliff Kupchan, a Russia expert and chairman of the Eurasia Group, a risk-analysis organisation based in New York and Washington. Thus Putin’s speech Friday at the United Nations General Assembly, the largest of global stages, will be closely watched for possible clues to his plans and aspirations. Putin’s year-old military intervention in Syria already has upended the balance of power in the bloody civil war. It has saved the embattled president, Bashar Assad, who President Obama said had to go, and put Russia increasingly in control of Syria’s future. Putin now is trying to wrest from Washington its long-standing, virtually exclusive role as mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He has invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to talks in Moscow next month. Both have accepted. The White House, which tried and failed to broker a peace deal in Obama’s first term, has been left on the sidelines. “He is committed to taking advantage of the opportunities where he can to enhance Russia’s global role and against anything that can look like a loss,” said James Collins, US ambassador to Moscow from 1997 to 2001 and now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Despite a battered domestic economy, Putin has largely succeeded in his ambition to make Russia a world power again. He has repeatedly stepped in where US policy has failed, been ineffective or is nonexistent, analysts say. That helps explain Putin’s decision to annex Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and his military support for pro-Russian insurgents in the former Soviet state, destabilising the elected government in Kiev. Those moves made him a pariah in the West, but sent his popularity soaring back home.
People who have spent time with Putin say he genuinely dislikes and distrusts the United States. His attitude was formed by what he perceives as slights, such as the US-backed expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation military alliance all the way to Russia’s borders. US intelligence officials believe Putin has sanctioned cyberattacks on US political institutions and figures, just as US spy agencies secretly conduct digital surveillance of Russian political leaders.
Putin’s military gamble in Syria thus ended Russia’s diplomatic isolation since annexing Crimea two years ago. Russia has “really inserted itself in the Middle East political process in a way that it really hasn’t since the Cold War,” said Dmitry Gorenburg, an expert on Russia at CNA, a non-profit think tank based in Arlington, Virginia.
Perhaps emboldened by his progress in Syria, Putin has taken on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the dilemma that has bedevilled generations of diplomats. Early this month, Putin sent his deputy foreign minister to Jerusalem to invite Netanyahu and Abbas to a summit in Moscow. Even if the effort fails, as analysts expect, it marks another challenge to US primacy and another step in Russia’s push for global power status.
“This initiative reflects Russia’s intention of gaining the upper hand in the Middle East and improving its relations with Arab countries,” former Israeli diplomat Zvi Magen and retired army Gen. Udi Dekel wrote in an analysis for the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies. “At the same time, Russia wants to prove once again that it is succeeding in brokering processes where the United States and the West have failed.”
— Courtesy: Los Angeles Times