Putin’s Syrian Gambit

Syrians hold photos of Assad and Putin during a pro-regime protest in front of the Russian embassy in Damascus, Syria, Sunday, March 4, 2012. Photo: Freedom House/Flickr
Syrians hold photos of Assad and Putin during a pro-regime protest in front of the Russian embassy in Damascus, Syria, Sunday, March 4, 2012. Photo: Freedom House/Flickr

Russia and Estonia exchanged Eston Kohver for Aleksei Dressen on 26 September 2015 at the Koidula – Kunitshina Gora border checkpoint. An ordeal lasting an entire year for Eston and his family was over, and so was the masquerade orchestrated by the FSB in the Russian courts that can hardly be assumed to administer justice (in an authoritarian and corrupt country where the rule of law and independence of the judiciary branch is evidently absent in real life). Every Estonian enjoyed the happy end to this saga.

Kohver and Dressen exchange September 26

Kohver, a security police (Kaitsepolitsei) officer, was abducted by the FSB from Estonian territory on 5 September 2014 – a couple of days after the visit of President Barrack Obama in Tallinn, at the height of NATO’s summit meeting in Wales. The timing of this outrageously provocative act was, of course, not at all incidental. It was clearly calculated to injure Estonia and teach the US and NATO a lesson about protecting its easternmost borders and allies, besides eliminating a troublemaking professional, who was reportedly on the trail of a trans border smuggling scheme that likely involved local and central government authorities in Russia.

Likewise, the timing of the exchange of Kohver for Dressen (himself a former Kaitsepolitsei officer who was sentenced in 2012 to 16 years in prison for high treason) was by no means accidental. President Vladimir Putin prepared his visit to New York to deliver a speech at the UNGA1 (by pure coincidence, due to rotation procedures, Russia now holds the presidency of the UNSC2, and this GA meeting also marks the 70th anniversary of the UN) and to meet with US President Barrack Obama, among other Western leaders. On the other hand, a UNGA outskirts meeting between Russian and Estonian ministers of foreign affairs, Sergey Lavrov and Marina Kaljurand, was also announced, obviously after the agreement and arrangements were made to exchange Kohver for Dressen.

The Kremlin was undoubtedly interested to send out positive signals and to improve its image before these encounters, which seemed to be particularly important for President Putin. Thus, Eston Kohver became a symbolic pawn in Russia’s game with the West, just after he was “sentenced” on 19 August 2015 by a Russian court in Pskov to 15 years in prison for “espionage”. His liberation was cheered by all the friends of Estonia, but not very many of them actually considered the real meaning of this event (in relation to its timing) or the sacrifice that had to be made by Estonia. President Toomas Hendrik Ilves had to pardon; in other words, to essentially rehabilitate a villain who is guilty of the most serious crimes against Estonia, who still holds Estonian citizenship and now enjoys the status of hero among his “colleagues” in Russia. Speaking of Dressen and Kohver, Estonia and Russia surely cannot agree on who the criminal is and who the hero.

Let’s go back to the timing question. President Putin is evidently a gambler who plays audaciously with high stakes even when – or perhaps namely because – his country is in dire straits, as Russia is in fact at this time. He makes desperate and costly moves, like the refurbishing of the air base in Latakia and the deployment of troops to Syria, in order to impress and put pressure on the US and its allies, and to save Russia and his regime from economic and political collapse. Let us not forget that in spite of Kiev’s political, economic and military weakness, Russia has not been capable of destabilizing Ukraine and turning it back within Moscow’s orbit. The Kremlin clearly prefers, under these circumstances, the total eclipse of the Ukrainian issue, as it happens, indeed, due to the immigration crisis that is dividing Western and Eastern Europe politically, the unpleasant perspective of Russia taking total control over Syria (or what is left of it) and perpetuating Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the continuation of the Syrian civil war and the massive outflow of refugees to Europe, and the need to confront and destroy Islamic State (ISIS).

RRj7xCefCrE9U0X2rDxmOgDS5E6fkNg5It seems that President Putin is setting up a cleverly veiled trap for the US and its European allies. This vile political setup looks quite simple and effective: a) ISIS is at the top of the American (also UK and French) security agenda, but Russia is also “concerned” about the spread of Islamic fundamentalism – so, let’s fight together against ISIS; b) Bashar al-Assad is a criminal, but he’s a loyal Russian ally, and he is the “legitimate” leader of the only force capable of fighting ISIS with ground troops and ultimately bring peace to Syria (and stop the outflow of refugees) – so, let’s forget about al-Assad’s crimes, we should all talk to him and initiate a “comprehensive political settlement”; c) Russia has made mistakes (not to be acknowledged officially and openly), but it stands ready to also make positive steps (e.g. release Kohver), and while in this “new” situation the West needs to cooperate with Russia, it would be natural to terminate the sanctions imposed by the EU and US – so, let’s do business and forget about the sanctions that will cause us all only trouble in the future.

If this scheme works, Russia will likely be relieved from Western political isolation and damaging economic sanctions by the end of 2015, thereby also creating a positive background for rising oil prices on the world markets and capital inflow into Russia. Most importantly, the Kremlin will score another brilliant victory against the West, making itself an equal if not the leading player in the Middle East, and create the illusion of positive transformations, whereas things would have actually changed for the worse.

It is equally clear that the US and the West in general do not have any good options left vis-à-vis Syria, especially after the tactical defeat in 2013 (when Putin intervened to save al-Assad from imminent air strikes, offering to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons with Western money and technical capabilities). Putin will likely make his proposal quite bluntly: Are you with us or against us? Do you want to have things done or not? Who is to blame afterwards? (You see, we have tried once again!)

In this situation, not forgetting about Ukraine (even if it isn’t directly related to Syria), the West should stand firm on its interests and values, and not play Putin’s game. Putin is not only remaking Bashar al-Assad, the rejected criminal whom Westerners wanted to take down and bring to justice, but also himself (fearing that the US still wants the demise of his regime). Estonia, a small but symbolic player in this big game, has also been presented a “carrot” by Russia – the ratification and the ultimate enforcement of the bilateral border treaty. President Putin and foreign minister Lavrov have repeatedly accused Estonia, as well as like-minded countries (Latvia, Lithuania, Poland etc.) of being the agents provocateurs in NATO and the EU, who always seek solidary and adequate measures to punish Russia (for its unspeakable misdeeds). Now, Russia hopes to “calm” Estonia at least for some time, until things are “settled”. It is extremely difficult to predict the outcome of Putin’s game by the end of this year, but Russia has unfortunately a good chance to score, given Western political weakness – the US is preparing for presidential elections and Europe is struggling with the exacerbating immigration crisis. The return back home of Eston Kohver will most likely not affect Estonian-Russian relations.


1 The General Assembly of the United Nations
2 The Security Council of the United Nations


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