No sooner had the conflict in eastern Ukraine frozen than Russia began its military deployment to Syria. Moscow's return to the world stage presents new opportunities, but also new dangers.
It's not often that Russia's president praises the United States. December 17, 2015 was such a day. Vladimir Putin himself appeared surprised at his annual press conference in Moscow as he said the Russian plan for Syria agreed with the American blueprint in key aspects. He said Moscow would support Washington's latest initiative to settle the Syrian conflict.
This followed a visit by US Secretary of State John Kerry to Russia two days earlier. Before his meeting with Putin, Kerry strolled demonstratively along the Arbat, Moscow's most popular shopping street, buying souvenirs. These images were drenched with symbolism that had not been seen for years.
The leading Moscow newspaper "Novaya Gazeta" wrote about a possible "breakthrough" in relations between Russia and the US, which had been frosty, most recently because of the Ukraine crisis. The key question is whether the two sides can agree on the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The US is demanding his resignation; Russia is supporting him, not least militarily.
Something to prove
"Putin has beaten Barack Obama again," Moscow journalist Konstantin Eggert wrote in an analysis for DW. With his deployment in Syria, which came as a surprise to the West, the Kremlin leader had succeeded in doing what he wanted from the beginning, namely "forcing the US to talk to him as an equal." Putin, he wrote, had set an agenda that had pushed the Ukraine conflict and the question of Crimea's annexation by Russia into the background.
In late September Russia joined the theater of war in Syria, where the international coalition led by the United States had previously had the say-so. By deploying its warplanes to Syria, Moscow is announcing its military is back on the world stage, because it is the first such mission since the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989.
Russia says its air force help Syrian troops in their fight against the terror militia known as Islamic State. The US, however, accused Russia of bombing mainly fighters from the Syrian opposition. Washington said Russia was complicating the situation.
On November 24, that situation became even more complicated when Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber along the border with Syria. Ankara said the Russian plane had violated Turkish airspace. It was the first time in decades that a NATO country had shot down a Russian military aircraft. Moscow responded with tough economic sanctions against Turkey and strengthened its military presence in Syria.
Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Russia intends to prevent "Assad's military defeat and IS marching into Damascus." But, he said, the outlook for this war is unclear if Syria is viewed in the broader context of Putin's plans.
"Just like Ukraine, this is a step directed against the existing world order, according to which questions of war and peace are decided by the US and its allies," Trenin said. "Putin has broken this principle."
Sabine Fischer of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin addresses a further aspect. She says one of Moscow's aims in Syria is "to break its isolation from the West," resulting from the Crimea annexation and the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
But the Kremlin's hoped-for success has failed to materialize. A broad alliance against international terrorism, which Putin had called for in his speech to the UN General Assembly in September, has not yet emerged. Fischer says she doubts that this will happen in the near future, because "the objectives and the methods of the various parties are very different."
Will Ukraine pay the price?
The emerging rapprochement between Russia and the US in the Syria issue is being viewed especially critically in Ukraine, a country that had previously dominated the agenda between Russia and the West. Western politicians emphasize that they would not swap their Russia-critical attitude for Russian help in Syria. But observers like Eggert predict the opposite: "Kyiv will pay the price for the restoration of understanding between Moscow and Washington."
In 2015, the Ukraine conflict reached a turning point. In January fighting escalated between the army and the pro-Russian separatists in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Against this background, German Chancellor Angela Merkel traveled with President Francois Hollande to Kyiv and Moscow.
The two mediated direct talks in the Belarusian capital Minsk between Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko on February 12. The result was the Minsk agreements - or more precisely "Minsk 2," because the first agreement on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine in September 2014 had held only a few weeks.
Minsk 2: Sequelitis
After the new Minsk agreements, Merkel spoke of a "glimmer of hope." But ten months later this glimmer threatens to fade away. Only one of the document's stipulations - concerning meetings of the Contact Group - has been met in full.
Although fighting has died down, there is no truce. UN figures show more than 3,300 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine since "Minsk 2." The ceasefire was "extremely fragile," Alexander Hug, of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, told DW.
The only stipulation with a fixed date is also likely to remain unfulfilled: The Minsk agreements call for a constitutional reform to enter into force in Ukraine by the end of 2015 that would provide a kind of autonomy for the separatist areas. And indeed, the Ukrainian parliament adopted this reform in the first reading, but the second vote is not expected to take place until 2016. Observers doubt it can muster the requisite 300 votes.
Ukraine is coming under increasing Western pressure. Kyiv has to implement "Minsk 2" even if Russia does not, US Vice President Joe Biden said on his recent visit to the Ukrainian capital.
Throwing Moscow's weight around
The Minsk agreements "are threatening to die slowly," says Kyiv-based German journalist Winfried Schiender-Deters. He predicts a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine, with the separatist regions supported by Russia but not incorporated into it like Crimea. Trenin predicts a similar scenario, but adds "The crisis has peaked."
Many experts agree that 2015 has brought no real change in the relationship between Russia and the West. It will continue to be tense. Although there will be limited cooperation in 2016, such as in combating IS, overall the relationship remains marked by rivalry and confrontation.
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