Russian President Vladimir Putin is engaged in a risky, high-stakes game of geopolitical poker, according to Russian political activist and former chess champion Garry Kasparov, who spoke to a Chicago Council on Global Affairs audience. Russian democracy, he furthered, is an institution that “has a longer losing streak than the Chicago Cubs.”
Kasparov argued that as long as Vladimir Putin is in power, prospects for healthy relations between the West and Russia will remain bleak. Yet the opportunity for a thaw in that relationship may be within reach as Russia and Western countries plan their next response to the shared threat of ISIS—which claimed responsibility for the crash of Metrojet Flight 9268, a Russian passenger airliner, and the coordinated attacks in Paris on November 13.
At the Group of 20 summit in Turkey just days after the terrorist attacks in Paris, Putin suggested that counterterrorism cooperation may help to bring Russia and the West closer together. “We proposed cooperation on antiterrorism; unfortunately our partners in the United States in the initial stage responded with a refusal,” he said. “But life indeed moves on, often very quickly, and teaches us lessons. It seems to me that everyone is coming around to the realization that we can wage an effective fight only together.” Yuri Ushakov, the Kremlin’s top foreign-policy advisor, however, noted that while President Barack Obama and Putin share “strategic goals regarding the fight against the Islamic State...they still differ as far as tactics are concerned.”
The fate of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is one key area where Russia and the West differ. Russia has been conducting airstrikes against rebel forces threatening Assad, even as the United States insists that Assad must go and supports anti-Assad forces. According to Kasparov, keeping Assad in power is a key component of the Kremlin strategy, and should that strategy fail, it would reveal that Putin’s “magic doesn’t work anymore.” The signal that sends to the Russian people and global community could be a decisive turning point in rolling back Putin’s aura of invincibility. Yet perhaps Putin already senses the need for a strategic shift on support for Assad, given reports that Russia now supports the UN-led negotiations for a transition government for Syria that is supposed to lead to free and fair elections.
Despite the tactical differences between the states fighting ISIS, the terrorist organization may be feeling the pressure of the coalition of countries now unified on the goal of ending its existence. Dr. Robert Pape, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, posits that territorial losses by ISIS in Syria and Iraq are leading ISIS to strike coalition members abroad with more sophisticated and deadly attacks. Pape recently appeared as part of an expert panel organized by the Council to discuss Syria and the global refugee crisis.
The coming months will be a critical test of Putin’s ability to use this crisis as an opportunity to begin a thaw of Russia’s relations with the West. The hundreds of thousands of refugees flowing out of Syria and into Europe are creating a political crisis in the European Union, and Kasparov feels the ultra-right wing nationalists in these countries—Putin’s allies—stand to benefit from the resulting political turmoil. Should an increase in popular support lead to their victory at the ballot box, their electoral success may be a step toward the removal of sanctions on Russian nationals and entities.
About the AuthorMatthew Abbott joined the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2015 as the director of government and diplomatic programs.
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