It's Time to Take Vladimir Putin's Diplomatic Skills Seriously

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be playing two very different roles in the Syria crisis simultaneously. On the one hand Putin is throwing his weight behind a diplomatic proposal to have Syria turnover its chemical weapons, and on the other, Putin appears to be blocking progress on the plan at the UN security council. The dual tracks are reinforcing the perception by some in the West that the Russian leader can't be trusted. Svetlana Savranskaya is Senior Fellow at the National Security Archive at George Washington University. Svetlana, what do you make of Putin entering the fray with this proposed diplomatic solution?

Svetlana Savranskaya: Oh, I think it's actually a very positive development and I do not see as much of a contradiction between Putin's action blocking the UN Security Council resolution. He actually in his recent interview to the Associated Press mentioned that if he had reliable evidence, he does not exclude a possibility that Russia would support a resolution on the use of force. However, this new initiative, which is an international initiative, I think is a very positive step that allows all three sides an opportunity to walk out of the dead end into which they have gotten themselves.

Werman: I mean one unflattering scenario that concerns some people is that because Assad is a Russia client still, it feels as if Putin might be trying to play both ends of the equation, peace broker and obstructionist to stall US action. Do you agree?

Savranskaya: Well, of course it is a possibility, and of course Russia, you know, is very committed to the Assad regime, but also on the other hand Russia has real leverage over Assad. And I think Russia right now, and has been for some time, involved in active negotiations with the Assad regime explaining to them that this is actually in their interest and will allow Assad to save face and have hope for preservation of his regime. Now, the initiative on giving up chemical weapons and international control has to be seen separately from the Russian point of view, from the initiative or possible actions to change regimes in Syria. Russian will not be flexible on the latter point. Russia definitely will standby the Assad regime, but the initiative to transfer chemical weapons under international control and to get Syria to sign the chemical weapons convention could be a very productive US-Russian initiative.

Werman: And of course, Svetlana, there's still this huge trust issue with Putin. Many Americans and American lawmakers and other key countries like France just don't trust him. He was a former head of the KGB. There's the charge that he's stifling descent in his country. How much does the autocrat characterization actually sum the man up and how much is he in fact kind of a shrewd diplomat?

Savranskaya: I would agree with the characterization that's well-deserved of being a leader that's stifling descent has a lot of impact in terms of trust, in terms of loss of trust, but I do think that we have a one-sided interpretation of him, which only stresses his KGB background. I think it's important to see him more in his own context, and his own context leads him in the more authoritarian direction also, not just his KGB background. the existing political forces in Russia with significant surge of nationalism and the strength of the communist party…I think if we put him in that context then we might see him more as a shrewd politician and not just the KGB product.

Werman: Svetlana Savranskaya, Senior Fellow at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, thank you.

Savranskaya: Thank you very much.