by Richard Gowan Monday
August 15, 2016

from WorldPoliticsReview Website

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Richard Gowan is an associate fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and nonresident fellow at NYU's Center on International Cooperation, where he was previously research director. He also teaches at Columbia University.

His weekly WPR column, Diplomatic Fallout,

appears every Monday.



Russian President Vladimir Putin

at a news conference in the Konstantin palace,

outside St. Petersburg, Russia, Aug. 9, 2016

(AP photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko).



Richard Gowan explains why Vladimir Putin,

if he ever loses interest in running Russia,

"should set up a diplomatic academy."

Putin’s skillful "attritional diplomacy," he writes,

has kept the West

permanently off balance.

If Vladimir Putin ever loses interest in running Russia, he should set up a diplomatic academy.


The British journalist and wit David Frost once defined diplomacy as,

"the art of letting somebody else have your way."

Through a mix of hard bargaining, guile and simple force, the Russian president has often shown that he knows how to do just that.

His skills were on ample display last week. Putin welcomed his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to St. Petersburg to bury their tensions over Syria.


He then ignited a new crisis with Kiev over an alleged shoot-out between Ukrainian and Russian security personnel in Crimea. Both maneuvers left Western officials rather rattled.

NATO hurried to dispel rumors that Ankara is tilting away from the alliance in the aftermath of the failed July coup attempt. European officials hastily called for calm in Ukraine.


Some analysts fear that Putin plans to grab more Ukrainian territory.


Others suspect that he is talking tough to boost his domestic support before upcoming parliamentary elections. Either way, he has once more proved his knack for using sharp diplomatic tactics to keep other powers off balance.

Since Russia seized Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014, strategists have written a great deal about its "hybrid" use of military power and unconventional tools like misinformation campaigns.


But Putin also knows how to use different types of diplomacy to maximize his leverage. He is good at using personal diplomacy to win over other leaders, even when they do not want to be impressed.


In 2013, he reportedly seeded the idea to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons with U.S. President Barack Obama on the sidelines of a G-20 summit.


Putin was quick to call Erdogan in July after the failed putsch while Western leaders dithered, gaining points with the Turkish president. But Putin also knows how to twist drawn-out diplomatic processes to his advantage.

For a power that is supposedly out to challenge the international system, Russia is adept at playing within that system's rules.


Moscow has insisted on handling the Syrian crisis through the United Nations, and permitted the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor Ukraine.


As I noted last week, Putin has even been keen to forge new frameworks for diplomacy, such as the "Normandy group", comprising,

  • Russia

  • France

  • Germany

  • Ukraine itself,

...that is supposed to resolve the festering crisis in eastern Ukraine.


By referring back to international institutions and diplomatic processes, Putin offers nervous Western leaders the impression, whether real or illusory, that he ultimately desires stability.

In reality, Moscow is often more concerned with deceiving and dividing other powers than a lasting compromise.


Reviewing Russia's behavior over Syria in mid-2015, I argued that it was marked by three characteristics that still seem valid:

  1. entangling the West in fragile peace initiatives that have little genuine chance of success and rely on Moscow's goodwill


  2. dispensing more-or-less illusory concessions on minor issues to appear constructive


  3. sending dark signals that, unless it is listened to, it may go on a diplomatic rampage and start blocking Western proposals far more brutally

Russian diplomats have been playing very similar games in recent weeks during the siege of Aleppo, using offers of temporary cease-fires and humanitarian corridors to deflect serious talks on ending the battle.

Putin has followed a similar playbook in Ukraine. Russia has stalled on many aspects of the implementation of the 2015 "Minsk process" backed by the Normandy group to stabilize the east of the country.


According to the International Crisis Group, it has looked for,

"opportunities to concentrate the parties more on the process than the settlement."

As Fredrik Wesslau argues, Russia's goal may be to drag out the proceedings until the U.S. and European Union tire of keeping Ukraine-related sanctions on Moscow:

"Every time a European politician says that the sanctions do not work or predicts that they will come to an end or, indeed, demands that they be gradually eased, Russia becomes more certain that the sanctions will soon disappear."

This is attritional diplomacy.


Delays and setbacks help Moscow wear down the West's willingness to keep on sparring with Russia. A nasty little crisis every now and again helps refocus everyone's attention on the need for more bargaining.


Putin has declared that he will boycott the next meeting of the Normandy group, slated for the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Beijing in September, over the Crimean incident.

This is a good example of the "diplomatic rampage" gambit that I previously noted over Syria, and this sort of scare-mongering works.


German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier headed to Russia today for talks on both Syria and Ukraine, declaring that there is no "standoff" with Moscow.


Unless Russia is firmly set on a new war in Ukraine, and perhaps even if it is, Western powers will inevitably look for ways to keep talks alive. The new British government of Prime Minister Theresa May has stated its desire to "normalize" relations with Moscow.


The Obama administration is sliding toward its last months in office, and seems desperate to get some sort of bargain over Syria.

In these conditions, Russia is well-placed to reshape diplomatic talks to its liking. In the short term, the EU and U.S. are still unlikely to lift sanctions.


But, as Paul Quinn-Judge notes, the Ukrainian government has also dragged its feet over implementing elements of the Minsk accords, especially those offering a special status to secessionist areas.

"In response, Moscow is turning up the heat," he concludes. "It is trying to remind Kyiv of the damage its forces could inflict on Ukraine, to force Kyiv's western backers to move on Minsk."

In the meantime, as I argued some weeks ago, the U.S. and its allies have little choice but to work more closely with Russia in Syria after the Turkish coup, and the Putin-Erdogan meeting clearly reinforces this.

So, if Putin's gambles pay off, he may not only get his way in Ukraine and the Middle East but also persuade his Western opponents to help him do so.


Like it or not, that's damnably deft diplomacy...