The highly anticipated sit-down meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama took place Monday. Putin arrived in the United States amid a carefully designed backdrop meant to show that Russia not only is a crucial player in the Middle East but that it is also a rational and sober world leader.
A pre-taped interview aired on the U.S. news program 60 Minutes ahead of Putin's arrival in New York for the U.N. General Assembly. In the interview, Putin rationalized many of the contentious issues surrounding Russia, arguing that Russia naturally would have influence and interest in its borderlands, because so many Russian people live there. He also argued that Russia is not a democracy yet because it takes time to develop into a democracy. Putin also reiterated Russia's support for Syrian President Bashar al Assad's government and explained its legitimacy.
Putin's tone in the interview — and in his speech at the United Nations on Monday — was somber and matter-of-fact. It diverged notably from his blustery tone a decade ago. He repeatedly called for international cooperation on the world's major issues, such as the situation in Syria, rather than the United States acting "selfishly." Of course, Russia would lead any international coalition, but Moscow is attempting to assert that it is a team player.
For weeks, Russia has played up its expanded presence in Syria; Moscow is trying to show that unlike the United States, it is fully committed to finding a solution to the country's conflict. In recent weeks, Russia has broadened its position in Syria with military and intelligence personnel, weapons and aerial components. The expanded presence — and the specific type of aircraft deployed — could indicate that Russia is preparing to provide air support against the Islamic State. Russia changed its rhetoric over the weekend, saying it would target "terrorists" — no longer specifying the Islamic State — which hints that Moscow intends to also target Syrian rebels under the auspices of anti-terrorism operations.
While the United States will be wary of Russian intentions and will keep a strong foothold in the Middle East to balance against Russia, it is also not particularly threatened by Russia's actions in Syria. Remember that Washington has been trying to get other countries to shoulder more of the burden in the region so it can focus on other important issues, such as diminishing Russia's sphere of influence in the former Soviet periphery. With Russia voluntarily taking up more of the burden of the fight in Syria against the Islamic State, the United States is no longer the only country at risk of becoming consumed by the conflict.
Still, there are limits to Russia's involvement in Syria. Currently, Russia has a limited military footprint, which if kept at this level will have narrow results on the Syrian battlefield. To fulfill Russia's stated desire of bringing about dramatic results, Moscow would have to make a much larger military commitment, which would be more costly and require more resources. Russia eventually could get bogged down in the complex conflict, much as the United States was in Iraq, should it actually deliver on its words.
Moreover, Russia has far more pressing domestic issues to contend with, which is why Moscow cannot divert considerable resources to what is largely a peripheral issue. Putin touched on these issues in his speech: NATO expansion along Russia's borderlands, Ukraine's inaction within the Minsk agreement, U.S.-backed color revolutions in the former Soviet states, and the West's sanctions against Russia. Moscow again attempted to shape perceptions, saying that Russia is not a threat but a potential partner for all and that the United States is the one promoting confrontation.
Russia may have come to the United Nations to show its strength and desire for cooperation while depicting the United States as a floundering giant, but Russia is still acting from a position of vulnerability and weakness. And all the while the United States is trying to keep enough distance from sticky issues to be able to deal with Putin's Russia in the first place.