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Russia and Ukraine: assembling Putin’s “Syrian puzzle”

"Syrian People's Republic," cartoon by Oleksiy Kustovsky
“Syrian People’s Republic,” cartoon by Oleksiy Kustovsky
Russia and Ukraine: assembling Putin’s “Syrian puzzle”
Article by: Andrey Kurkov
Translated by: Anna Mostovych

A strange elation has been spreading in social networks: Putin supposedly has become actively involved in Syria and, therefore, would no longer be interested in Ukraine. At first I thought these were postings by naïve citizens who were dreaming that Putin would forget Ukraine. But no! These citizens are not always naïve and some are even putting forth something resembling analysis of this “good news.” Perhaps in order to have this “good news” resonate more.

In reality, the puzzle consists of something quite different. Specifically, this entire story about the intensification of military aid by President Putin to President Assad has a completely different — even opposite — purpose! But let’s examine the pieces of the puzzle that we need to assemble correctly.

1. Silence along the front that the Ukrainian authorities have been trying to negotiate in vain with the separatists began on August 31, even though it had been promised for September 1. Well, on August 31, in the midst of this silence, a grenade exploded very loudly near the parliament building, and one had the impression that the front line had moved from the Donbas to Hrushevsky street in Kyiv. But right now it is the silence in the Donbas that is more important for us. Who could have ordered the separatists and their Russian helpers-leaders to stop the fire? Only the Kremlin, since (the “separatists”) do not recognize any other authority. The one who pays the piper, gets to call the “tune” of the guns, or in some cases, the silence.

2. At about the same time, it was announced that Putin would come to New York for the UN General Assembly. And, as a result, he would not mind meeting with the US president — either accidentally or deliberately! All this information arrived from Russia and was either denied or confirmed by Peskov, Lavrov, and other Russian officials and politicians.

3. After a week overflowing with arguments and comments by political scientists and analysts about Putin’s forthcoming speech in New York, Russian navy warships loaded up with equipment and weapons went through the Bosporus Strait to the Mediterranean Sea. President Obama expressed his concern. After this expression of “concern” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov calmly explained that Russia supported and would support the Syrian president with military equipment, weapons, and specialists.

The “Russian front” in the Syrian war has existed for some time, but right now with the help of the Kremlin this subject has gained more attention in the international media than the conflict in the Donbas, and especially the question of the annexation of Crimea. Why? I think it is because this is exactly what Putin wants — that negotiations take place with him about Syria and not about Crimea and the Donbas. He wants Obama to want to meet with him and to begin negotiations about Syria, to negotiate Russia’s “departure” from Syria, along with its ships, planes, “Uragans,” “Romashkas,” and other self-propelled and not self-propelled artillery. It is clear that strengthening Assad’s position prolongs the war and makes it even bloodier. Exacerbating the war increases the flow of refugees across the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe. The increased flow of refugees threatens the European Union with a deepening refugee crisis and this, in turn, damages US positions in Europe. The US is unlikely to help Europe resettle hundreds of thousands of refugees and to assure them support and work.

Vladimir Putin probably will not discuss Ukraine at the UN, and he certainly will not discuss Crimea. He will talk about Syria, about the “Islamic state,” thus emphasizing how much more important and relevant this topic is compared to the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. Therefore, the goal of strengthening Russian military presence in Syria is to make Europe and the US forget about Ukraine and Crimea. In this situation, the information that several “DNR” and “LNR” militants together with their Russian “colleagues” have gone to fight to Syria seems strangely symbolic. In practice, this is the same front, where Russia’s war has one common goal — to destroy Ukraine and to make sure the West stops supporting the Ukrainian state and leaves Ukraine an invalid country with amputated Crimea and Donbas, similar to a persons who has experienced a stroke.

I do not think the West fails to understand this. Of course, the West may consider that the Kremlin’s military aid for President Assad may end after Putin’s speech in New York. But this will happen only after the West makes concessions to the Kremlin. After all, it is important for Putin to go home a winner. At least somewhat of a winner. This probably will not happen, and then the Russian army in Syria will go on the offensive. And by the way, calm in the Donbas calm will lose its political importance for the Russian president. And the Kremlin will once again be able to pay the “DNR” and “LNR” performers for the “music of guns” And that tune will begin to be “played” again.

Andrey Kurkov is a Ukrainian writer, screenwriter, and journalist, best known for the satirical 2001 novel Death and the Penguin and, more recently, Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kyiv, a collection of essays on the Maidan revolution.

Translated by: Anna Mostovych
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