03:41 pm
25 October 2016

Putin urges joint US-Russia military action against Isis

Vladimir Putin has renewed his call to the US and other western states for a joint campaign against Islamist terrorism in Syria, suggesting it could become a testing ground for a new model of global co-operation in tackling problems.

Speaking at the annual Valdai Club conference of invited journalists and foreign experts near Sochi, the Russian president made his second appeal in a month for such a partnership, following his speech in September at the UN General Assembly.

Even as he held out the prospect of closer co-ordination with the US, however, Mr Putin made his customary acerbic criticism of US policies in the Middle East and elsewhere.

He accused Washington of playing a “double game” over terrorism in the Middle East by deliberately using some terrorist groups as a “battering ram to overthrow regimes they don’t like”.

While he repeated a litany of grievances towards Washington, the Russian leader appeared more comfortable and self-assured than at the same event a year ago, when he delivered a speech dripping with anti-US vitriol.

Mr Putin appeared to feel events were moving in his favour after he seized the initiative in Syria, and shifted from military to diplomatic pressure on the pro-western leadership of neighbouring Ukraine.

He insisted the rouble exchange rate had stabilised, despite the continuing strain on Russia’s economy from low oil prices and western sanctions imposed after its annexation of Crimea.

“[Putin’s] main message was he thinks Russia is capable of working on many fronts at the same time, and has a good chance to win, militarily, domestically and economically,” said Piotr Piotr Dutkiewicz, a Russia expert from Carleton University in Ottawa. “It is a sense of optimism — although I’m not sure that optimism is fully justified.”

Mr Putin, who appeared alongside guests including Ali Larijani, the Iranian parliament speaker, and Václav Klaus, the former Czech president, was making his first high-profile international appearance since Russia launched air strikes in Syria on September 30.

His speech also came less than 48 hours after he held talks with Bashar al-Assad in Moscow, in the Syrian president’s first foreign visit since 2011.

The Russian president has been involved in intense diplomacy since the Assad talks, with phone calls to leaders across the Middle East. John Kerry, US secretary of state, and the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov will hold talks with their Saudi and Turkish counterparts in Vienna on Friday.

Mr Putin insisted Russia’s three-week-old bombing campaign in Syria was aimed at driving back Isis and creating conditions for a peace process and long-term settlement to the civil war in the country.

Responding to a question from the Financial Times, the Russian leader said the question of whether Mr Assad should stand aside as part of any settlement was “up to the Syrian people” in transparent elections.

He added that any partition of Syria was “unacceptable”, as it would mean leaving parts of the country in terrorist hands.

But he said Mr Assad had signalled in his Moscow meeting he was ready for dialogue with opposition forces. Mr Putin also said the Syrian president had said he was prepared to allow Russia to support opposition groups that were genuinely ready to fight Isis.

“We are now thinking about this and are trying, if it works out, to reach these agreements,” Mr Putin added.

The US has rebuffed Mr Putin’s appeals to co-operate in Syria and accused Moscow of targeting much of its bombing on moderate opposition forces, some of them armed and supported by the US, rather than on Isis.

But Mr Putin said Moscow was close to exchanging information with western countries on Islamist militants’ positions in Syria.

He said the world’s leading powers had missed an opportunity early in the last decade to unite in fighting terrorism — a reference to his attempts to engage with President George W Bush after the 9/11 attacks on the US. “We should not miss the chance again,” Mr Putin said.

But his call for co-operation was almost lost amid his criticisms of the US, which he blamed for igniting a “spark that caused an explosion” through its interventions in the Middle East.

Mr Putin said the deal over Iran’s nuclear programme negotiated by the US, Russia and others had proved that Washington lied over the ballistic missile defence system it is constructing in Europe by saying it was aimed at Iran, not Russia.

“The Iranian nuclear problem has been solved, there is no threat and there never was,” Mr Putin said. But he said the US had recently begun testing its missile shield in Europe, which posed a threat to Russia’s strategic missile capabilities. “We were deceived,” he added.