U.S. President Barack Obama received a phone call from Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin this Thursday.
Putin initiated the first contact in 4 months as the two leaders attempt to maintain a working relationship on issues such as Syria and Iran, despite growing tensions over the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, according to The New York Times.
Russia emphasizing continued role regarding Syria and Iran
“The leaders discussed the increasingly dangerous situation in Syria, and underscored the importance of continued P5+1 unity in ongoing negotiations to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” the White House said.
The two leaders have not had any direct contact since February, according to the White House. Putin addressed the issue of the Islamic State in Syria, and the two leaders agreed to set up a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov, at which the two men would discuss strategies to counter the spread of Islamism in the Middle East.
Also on the agenda were ongoing negotiations with Iran related to the country’s nuclear program. Next week’s deadline is rapidly approaching, and many details still need to be finalized. Commentators believe that there is a good chance that a deal will be struck, although talks may continue for slightly longer than predicted.
Should a deal be finalized, Iran will be open for business. As well as the predicted Russian sale of S-300 missile systems to Tehran, companies from all over the world will be competing for a piece of the new market.
Obama steers conversation towards Ukraine
U.S. officials state that although other issues were discussed, Obama was keen to talk about the war in Ukraine. He reportedly urged Putin to uphold the fragile ceasefire known as the Minsk accord, which has allegedly been broken on multiple occasions by both sides.
Renewed fighting has broken out in the last few weeks and the Minsk agreement appears to be hanging by a thread. “President Obama reiterated the need for Russia to fulfill its commitments under the Minsk agreements, including the removal of all Russian troops and equipment from Ukrainian territory,” the White House said.
Putin made the phone call on the same day that reports surfaced of continued shipments of ammunition and military supplies from Russia into Ukraine. According to a spokesman for the Kremlin, Putin will send deputy foreign minister, Grigory Karasin, for talks with U.S. assistant secretary of state Victoria J. Nuland regarding adherence to the Minsk accord.
The real purpose of Putin’s phone call
Putin’s initiation of contact with Obama, and his desire to primarily discuss Syria and Iran, may provide evidence of an attempt to demonstrate Russia’s continued influence in international affairs despite mounting evidence that Russia is becoming increasingly isolated, and has failed to convince any Western nations to break with consensus and withdraw support for economic sanctions imposed on Moscow.
Another flashpoint in the relationship between Washington and Moscow is the continued conflict in Syria. Whereas Moscow supports the government of President Bashar al-Assad, Washington has demanded his resignation.
It is hoped that the threat of the Islamic State is now grave enough that Putin will pressure Assad into resigning, although cynics point out that Moscow’s renewed interest in the subject may be a way of drawing attention away from Ukraine.
Dialogue important in complicated geopolitical situation
Despite fears that the phone call may have been a smokescreen used to distract U.S. officials from Ukraine and other ongoing issues related directly to Russia, the fact that direct contact was made between the two leaders can only be encouraging.
Western leaders have admitted that they do not fully understand Putin’s aims in the international sphere, and Moscow’s lack of respect for the norms of international relations makes Russia a difficult negotiating partner. Fears are growing of a return to a Cold War-style standoff in Eastern Europe as the U.S. and its NATO allies engage in a tit-for-tat game involving military exercises and escalating rhetoric.
The slide towards a tense standoff in the East could be arrested by sustained contact and greater transparency, but it appears that Putin is convinced that militarization is the best way to maintain his hold on power. Increasingly aggressive rhetoric and a number of patriotic initiatives are sustaining public mistrust of the U.S. within Russia, a dangerous idea that is also propagated by powerful state media.
Both sides should reconsider whether military brinkmanship in Eastern Europe is really in their best interests, and the kind of direct dialogue initiated by Putin could prove to be beneficial in preventing the further deterioration of the situation.