INTERNATIONAL

Putin: from outcast to powerbroker in 1 year

What a difference a war makes. Twelve months ago, Vladimir Putin was on the menu at the G20 summit in Brisbane. Western leaders queued up hungrily for a piece of Russia’s President following his armed intervention in Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea.

Barack Obama warned Mr. Putin he was isolated internationally; David Cameron said he did not trust the Russian leader; Stephen Harper, Canada’s then prime minister, told Mr. Putin bluntly: “Get out of Ukraine”.

Reacting angrily to the imposition of sanctions, Mr. Putin said western leaders had switched off their brains and were making matters worse by punishing Moscow. But the criticism continued unabated and he left the meeting early in a huff.

Fast-forward to this week’s G20 summit in Turkey and everything, it seems, has changed. Mr. Putin was pictured in a friendly huddle, chatting animatedly to Mr. Obama and U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice. He also held reportedly productive talks with Mr. Cameron and other leaders. No longer ostracised and browbeaten, Mr. Putin was the man everybody wanted to meet.

The reason is not a mystery. Under merciless attack from Islamic State, flailing on the refugee crisis, and consequently desperate to end the war in Syria, European leaders, backed by Mr. Obama, have come to an uncomfortable but, in historical terms, not wholly novel conclusion: they need Russia. Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin had agreed on the need for a “Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition, which would be preceded by UN-mediated negotiations between the Syrian opposition and regime as well a ceasefire,” the White House said.

This all boils down to a diplomatic hat-trick for Mr. Putin. First, he has gained western recognition that Russian military forces have a legitimate role to play in Syria, in exchange for vague promises to cooperate with the U.S.-led coalition and not to shoot the “good guys”. This marks a complete reversal of the initial American position, which was that Moscow’s intervention was unwelcome and “doomed to failure”.

Second, Mr. Obama and Mr. Cameron have been forced to accept that Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s President, may stay in office, possibly for the duration of the proposed 18-month, UN-supervised Syria peace negotiation, as Mr. Putin has insisted all along.

Third, Mr. Putin appears to have succeeded in gaining tacit acceptance of the de facto situation in Ukraine. The fighting in eastern Ukraine has in any case subsided following the Minsk accords. But Russia remains firmly in control of Crimea, and its illegal annexation now appears set to become an established fact of life.

The conclusion must be that Mr. Putin’s gamble in flagrantly breaching international law has paid off and Crimea is now permanently lost to Kiev. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2015

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