A Grand Bargain with Putin Against ISIS?

AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to the media during his news conference after at the G-20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey, Monday, November 16, 2015. 

This is an update of a piece that ran at The Huffington Post.

What follows is not very pretty. But it may be the best option available in a crisis without good options.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made no secret of the fact that he would like some kind of political settlement with the West. The German magazine Der Spiegel has just published a leaked official Russian memo outlining a proposed grand bargain in which Putin eases out its close ally, Syrian President Assad, in favor of a still pro-Russian regime that at least stops killing its own people. In return the West acknowledges what has been an open secret for several decades—that Syria is Russia’s sphere of influence in the Arab world. Then the U.S., Russia, Iran, and the rest of the grand coalition can get on with the urgent business of eliminating or at least drastically weakening ISIS.  

Until the Paris attacks, there was little enthusiasm in the West for this approach. Putin, after all, is a thug and he has put Russia on an expansionist course. On the other hand, maybe a grand bargain with Putin against ISIS is not so crazy.

As part of the deal, the U.S. and Russia might have to reach some understanding about how to stabilize the situation in Ukraine, possibly acknowledging a Russian sphere of influence in the eastern, Russian-speaking part of the country. That is not pretty either, though it is already something of a fait accompli.

But, with a deal with Putin, the great powers could have a more of a chance of reversing the territorial gains of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, restoring stability to Syria, which in turn would slow the torrent of refugees now engulfing Europe, increasing votes for far-right parties, and undermining the European Union. Maybe that’s not such a bad bargain.

Right now, the U.S., Russia, and to some extent Iran are each pursuing inconsistent military actions against ISIS rather than collaborating. That’s really crazy.

Would we be selling out the promise of a democratic Syria? It’s not as if any of the regimes in the Middle East are Jeffersonian democracies, or have any chance of becoming so any time soon.

During World War II, the U.S. and the far more repressive Soviet Russia were allies against an even worse Nazi regime. We gave the Soviets Lend-Lease aid, to help them destroy the Wehrmacht after Hitler’s worst blunder of the war, his invasion of Russia.

As the War was ending, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill took the lead at the Yalta conference of February 1945 in negotiating postwar spheres of influence, acknowledging Stalin’s demands for client states on the U.S.S.R.’s near borders. That was not pretty either; it was outrageous.

What the West did not give Russia, Stalin took by military occupation. But the alternative was probably a pivot from an exhausting war against Hitler to a shooting war against Stalin. Nobody wanted that. It took another 40 years for communism to finally collapse.

Churchill had a habit of making such deals. After World War I, it was Churchill who carved up the Middle East into its current sheikdoms and kingdoms, partly for geopolitical reasons and partly to make deals between client states and Western oil companies. This was also far from pretty, and it seeded the ground for much of today’s anti-Western rebellions in the region. What goes around comes around.

But there are truly ugly, and not so ugly, versions of realpolitik. The Middle East imperialism of the younger Churchill was an outrage that took the better part of a century to backfire on the West. The deal at Yalta in 1945 probably gave Stalin more territory than the West had to.

On the other hand, the wartime alliance with the loathsome Soviet dictator was absolutely necessary to defeat Hitler. Which brings me back to Putin.

A few commentators, such as the Russia scholar Stephen F. Cohen, have argued that it is at least partly the fault of the West that Putin is now our enemy. Russia, Cohen contends, has legitimate security interests like any other great power. From Russia’s perspective, expanding NATO to Russia’s very borders and colluding in the overthrow of a pro-Moscow government in Kiev were gratuitous provocations. For this argument, Cohen has been excoriated in leftwing and rightwing publications alike.

I don’t share Cohen’s analysis, but he is right on one point. Russia and the U.S. do potentially have some common interests.

The attacks on Paris demonstrate that ISIS and its local sympathizers are capable of hitting civilian targets almost at will. Unlike al-Qaeda, ISIS is partly decentralized, and far more difficult for police and intelligence to infiltrate or monitor.

On the other hand, fanatical zealots tend to overreach, just as Hitler disastrously overreached when he invaded Soviet Russia. In its recent actions, ISIS has overreached.

In the past few weeks, ISIS or its sympathizers blew up a Russian civilian airliner and suicide-bombed a neighborhood in Beirut controlled by Hezbollah, in addition to its barbaric attacks in Paris. This all may be consistent with ISIS’s warped worldview—but it is strategic insanity. You can’t attack everybody without bringing everybody into a coalition against you.

It’s no accident that the Putin memo was leaked to a German magazine. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in Soviet-occupied East Germany, is fluent in Russian. Putin, who was a KGB agent in East Germany, is fluent in German. The two leaders speak at least weekly. The idea of such a grand bargain surely has some appeal to Merkel, as the refugee crisis increasingly threatens her own leadership in Germany.

Some progress on getting rid of Assad was made at a strategy conference on Syria held in Vienna earlier this week that included senior diplomats from the U.S., Russia, Iran, and several other nations. But the pace is still glacial, while civil war, refugee flows, and ISIS are happening right now. 

And at the G-20 Summit in Turkey, leaders disagreed over whether Russian attacks were targeting mainly ISIS or the moderate armed resistance to Assad. So the weekend’s events suggest that we have a long way to go before Russia and the West are on the same side in Syria.

In terms of domestic politics, the initial consequence of a grand bargain with Putin would be catcalls from the right. But if the result were to end the civil war in Syria, reverse the territorial gains of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, ease the refugee crisis in Europe, and reduce the capacity of ISIS to menace the West, the jeers would turn to cheers.

In a nation such as ours that cherishes democracy, this brand of realpolitik is never pretty—and it can be executed well or badly. It makes strategic sense only when all the other options are worse.

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