G20 offers Putin one more stab at Obama on Syria, Ukraine

Putin and Obama

Putin and Obama

The G20 summit starting in China on Sunday gives Russian President Vladimir Putin one more chance to try to strongarm US leader Barack Obama over Syria and Ukraine as their fraught relationship nears an end.

In recent years the two world leaders have barely been able to hide their disdain for each other as ties between Washington and Moscow fell to their lowest level since the Cold War over the crisis in Ukraine.

Now with elections for a new US president just over two months away, Russian analysts say an emboldened Putin could see the G20 as an opportunity to press for concessions from Obama, particularly on Syria if he wants to make progress on the war before leaving office.

While neither the Kremlin nor the White House have announced any official bilateral meeting at the two-day gathering in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, it is expected that the pair will talk at least informally.

Putin “will try to get from Barack Obama… what he hasn’t been able to obtain from Washington in the past,” independent political analyst Maria Lipman told AFP.

– ‘Crisis of confidence’ –

But commentators said that with relations between the two sides in the gutter it was unlikely any major breakthrough would happen before the end of Obama’s time in power.

“There is very little time left,” Alexei Makarkin, from Moscow-based think tank The Centre for Political Technologies, said. “And there is a huge crisis of confidence between the two countries.”

Russia and the United States back opposing sides in Syria’s five-year war, which has left 280,000 people dead and forced half the population to flee their homes.

Moscow, an ally of Damascus, and Washington, which supports moderate rebels fighting to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, are nominally co-chairs of the international effort seeking a negotiated end to the fighting.

The pair have been trying to hammer out a deal on a new ceasefire in Syria and possible cooperation against the Islamic State group and other radical jihadists, but their top diplomats failed to clinch a final agreement at talks in Geneva last week.

Obama said earlier in August that while “the US remains prepared to work with Russia to try to reduce the violence and strengthen our efforts” against jihadists, there remained a fundamental gulf.

“I’m not confident that we can trust the Russians and Vladimir Putin,” he said.

– From reset to rupture –

When Obama first came into the White House there was some hope in the US that Moscow and Washington could improve ties after bitter disputes over the invasion of Iraq and Moscow’s war with Georgia.

Ex-lawyer Dmitry Medvedev was president and in 2009 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched her bid to “reset” relations with the Kremlin. But the much hoped for boost in ties failed to materialise.

When ex-KGB officer Putin — whom Obama had chided for his “Cold War approaches” — returned to the presidency in 2012 amid mass protests the Kremlin blamed on the West, it appeared to spell the end for any real attempts at rapprochement.

Ties were ultimately ruptured by Moscow’s response to the 2014 pro-EU revolution in Kiev that ousted Russian-backed leader Viktor Yanukovych and threatened to wrench Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit.

The Kremlin seized the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in March 2014 — in a dramatic rewriting of post-Soviet borders — before, according to the West, going on to fuel a separatist conflict in Ukraine’s east.

The US slapped sanctions on Moscow and tried to isolate Putin, but the Russian strongman muscled his way back to centre stage by launching a surprise bombing campaign in Syria in September 2015 to back Assad.

Despite his harsh criticism of the Russian leadership throughout his two terms, Russian foreign policy analyst Fyodor Lukyanov said Obama has always appeared “very prudent” in handling Putin.

In 2013 Washington backed away from using military force against Assad’s regime after it crossed the “red line” of using chemical weapons, allowing Putin instead to help push Damascus to give up its stockpiles.

Despite firm diplomatic backing, the US has also refused to send much-needed weaponry to Ukraine to help Kiev battle the pro-Russian rebels.

“Together Putin and Obama have avoided the worst,” Lukyanov said. “They have prevented Russian-American relations from turning into a direct conflict.”

And with the more hawkish Hillary Clinton now favourite to beat Donald Trump to be the next president, Lukyanov said that Moscow realised it might face a tougher US response in the future.

“It will be very difficult for Moscow to find common ground with Washington after Obama’s departure,” he said.

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