Obama and Putin: A return to the Cold War?

Obama and Putin A return to the Cold War
Clash over Syria reveals head-to-head conflict between global powers reminiscent of Cold War, say analysts

The UN clash between President Barack Obama and Russian leader Vladimir Putin over the conflict in Syria on Monday has revived memories of the Cold War, a series of analysts are claiming.

Both American and Russian observers saw the dispute in terms that recalled the clashes between Soviet leader Leonid Breznev and President Richard Nixon in the Seventies.

“What Putin is trying to do is restore Russia’s greatness because they lost the Cold War and I think that that is something that bears heavily on him,” said former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in an interview with NBC News on Monday.

“It was a Cold-War-like encounter,” commented Pavel Felgenhauer, a veteran military analyst writing in the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta on Monday.

However, experts say that Putin is prevailing in these encounters. “Russia is on a roll,” wrote analysts at the Georgia Caucasus Strategic Studies Institute (GCSSI) in a note published on Tuesday.

The speeches to the UN, and a two-hour meeting between Putin and Obama on the sidelines, were both responses to Russia’s seizing the initiative in Syria, with 2,000 troops in place, military bases under construction and heavy arms provided to the Assad regime’s army. According to Charles Lister, of the Brookings Institution, the Assad regime “was definitely in the most strategically weak position the regime has found itself in since early 2013. The regime has had to cede territory back to critical zones.”

Putin has said that a collapse of the Assad regime would turn Syria into a failed state like Libya — with dangerous consequences for Eurasia — and has justified Russia’s military presence as a bulwark against such a collapse. 

“Putin, who views a collapse in Syria as a local issue with the regime in Damascus serving as a bulwark against the spread of extremism into the gut of Russia, doesn’t think much of the U.S.-led efforts to date against Daesh,” commented David Rothkopf, in an article published in Foreign Policy on Tuesday.

Obama is still developing a strategy, according to Rothkopf, based on the idea of an exit from the Middle East. “He wanted out of the region. He did not want to put U.S. boots on the ground. He wanted someone or a group from the region to pick up the slack. And that’s exactly what he’s getting,” Rothkopf said.

But Obama must be seen as standing up to Putin, according to Albright. Yet, his speech did not provide many specifics: “This work will take time. There are no easy answers to Syria. And there are no simple answers to the changes that are taking place in much of the Middle East and North Africa,” Obama pointed out.

Both Obama and Putin evoked the Cold War in their speeches about resolving the conflict, as they went head-to-head on the war in Syria and the future of the Assad regime.

Putin blamed “the bloc thinking of the times of the Cold War and the desire to explore new geopolitical areas that is still present among some of our colleagues”. He accused them of setting up obstacles to political and economic co-operation with Russia.

Putin insisted that Russia’s military presence in Syria is only to fight terrorism.

“Russia has always been consistently fighting against terrorism in all its forms. Today, we provide military and technical assistance both to Iraq and Syria and many other countries of the region who are fighting terrorist groups,” he said.

“We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces, who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face. We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad’s armed forces and Kurdish militias are truly fighting the Islamic State [Daesh] and other terrorist organizations in Syria,” Putin said.

Obama, however, attacked the Assad regime.

“Realism requires a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader, and an inclusive government that recognizes there must be an end to this chaos so that the Syrian people can begin to rebuild,” he said.

But analysts again saw this as lacking concrete detail, with Obama effectively accepting Putin’s position.

Describing the West’s support for moderate Syrian opposition as a “delusion,” GCSSI analysts wrote: “Western policy does seem to be moving the way Putin wants. The U.S., having spent years demanding Assad’s instant departure, now concedes that he might stay on in an ‘interim’ capacity.”

Baghdad’s decision to share information with Russia, Syria and Iran to combat Islamic State [Daesh] militants will take the fight to the enemy in a way Washington has been unwilling to do, Rothkopf said.

“Obama’s U.N. address on Monday did not offer any clear answers — about anything,” he added.