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Kremlin Relishes Syria,Ukraine Turmoil 10/13 10:16

   From Syria to Ukraine, new fault lines and tensions are offering the Kremlin 
fresh opportunities to expand its clout and advance its interests.

   MOSCOW (AP) -- From Syria to Ukraine, new fault lines and tensions are 
offering the Kremlin fresh opportunities to expand its clout and advance its 
interests.

   In Syria, the U.S. military withdrawal in the face of a Turkish offensive 
leaves Russia as the ultimate power broker, allowing it to help negotiate a 
potential agreement between Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Kurds who 
were abandoned by Washington.

   And in Ukraine, where the new president saw his image dented by a U.S. 
impeachment inquiry, Russia may use the volatility to push for a deal that 
would secure its leverage over its western neighbor.

   The Turkish offensive in northern Syria followed President Donald Trump's 
decision to withdraw U.S. forces from the area, cold shouldering the 
Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, the key U.S. ally in the fight against 
the Islamic State group.

   Washington's abrupt decision to ditch the Kurds contrasted sharply with 
Moscow's unwavering support for its ally Assad, which helped his government 
reclaim the bulk of the country's territory in a devastating civil war.

   Along with military power, Russian President Vladimir Putin has relied on 
diplomacy to achieve his goals in Syria, reaching out to regional powers --- 
from Iran to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey.

   NATO member Turkey has become a particularly important partner for Russia. 
Even though the two countries have backed opposite sides in the Syrian 
conflict, they have pooled efforts to negotiate a de-escalation zone in the 
Syrian province of Idlib and co-sponsor talks on forming a committee that would 
draft a new Syrian constitution.

   The Russia-Turkey rapprochement came as Ankara's relations with Washington 
grew increasingly chilly and were further strained over Turkey's recent 
purchase of Russian air defense missiles.

   Turkey's offensive in Syria, which has drawn harsh criticism from the U.S. 
and European Union, may now push Moscow and Ankara even closer.

   "Russia wants to benefit from that operation, and one of the gains could be 
the strengthening of ties with Turkey," said Kirill Semenov of the Russian 
International Affairs Council. "The harsh response from Washington, the EU 
reaction, the threat of sanctions against Turkey all play into Moscow's hands 
by making Moscow and Ankara even closer."

   Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Putin just before unleashing 
air strikes and an artillery barrage on Kurdish-controlled areas in Syria. 
Ankara charges that the Kurdish fighters in Syria are allied with the outlawed 
Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has led an insurgency against Turkey 
for 35 years.

   While Russia has noted the need to respect Syria's territorial integrity, it 
also has emphasized Turkey's right to ensure its security --- a benevolent 
stance contrasting with the harsh Western criticism of the Turkish offensive.

   Russia has long urged the U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters in Syria to come back 
to Damascus' fold, an offer they may need to take more seriously now.

   "We heard that both Syrian officials and representatives of Kurdish 
organizations expressed interest in Russia using its good relations with all 
parties to the process in arranging such talks," Russian Foreign Minister 
Sergey Lavrov told reporters on Thursday. "We will see what we can do."

   Lavrov also pointed at another Moscow goal --- brokering a dialogue between 
Turkey and Assad's government, something Ankara has strongly rejected in the 
past.

   "It would be good for Russia to bring Ankara and Damascus to the table and 
have Ankara acknowledge the legitimacy of the regime in Damascus, if not Assad 
himself," Semenov said.

   In another power game, Russia hopes to see major gains in its long-running 
effort to retain leverage over its neighbor Ukraine, a former Soviet republic 
looking to align itself with the West. In 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine's 
Crimean Peninsula and threw its support behind a separatist insurgency in 
eastern Ukraine following the ouster of Ukraine's Moscow-friendly leader, moves 
that triggered bruising Western sanctions.

   President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who was elected by a landslide in April, has 
vowed to end the fighting, which has killed more than 13,000. Early this month, 
Ukraine, Russia and the rebels signed a tentative agreement to hold local 
elections in the east, a deal Zelenskiy insists conforms to a 2015 peace accord 
that was brokered by France and Germany.

   The agreement, however, has been criticized by some in Ukraine as 
"capitulation" to Moscow. On Monday, far-right and nationalist groups are 
staging a major rally in Kyiv to protest Zelenskiy's peace plan.

   The Ukrainian president has been drawn into the political furor in the 
United States, where Democrats in Congress are conducting an impeachment 
inquiry triggered by his telephone conversation with Trump. In the July 25 
call, Trump pushed him to open a corruption investigation into Democratic rival 
Joe Biden and his son. In the days before the call, Trump ordered a freeze on 
hundreds of millions of dollars in badly needed U.S. military aid. After a 
congressional uproar, the aid was released in September.

   Zelenskiy has denied being pressured by Trump, but this past week he 
encouraged U.S. and Ukrainian prosecutors to discuss investigating a gas 
company linked to Biden's son, although no one has produced evidence of 
criminal wrongdoing by either Biden.

   The White House's publication of a rough transcript of the call was 
embarrassing for the 41-year-old Ukrainian president because it showed him 
eager to please Trump and dismissive of European partners whose support he 
needs to end the conflict in the east. While Zelenskiy sought to play it down, 
it could help Russia by eroding support for Ukraine in Germany and France.

   "France and Germany have grown tired of Ukraine and are too busy with their 
own problems, and their only goal is to close the issue of the war in the east 
by any means," said Vadim Karasev, head of the Institute of Global Strategies, 
an independent Kyiv-based think tank. "If Russia offers a compromise, Berlin 
and Paris will heave a sigh of relief. By publicly kicking (German Chancellor 
Angela) Merkel and (French President Emmanuel) Macron, Zelenskiy untied their 
hands and there is no more talk about their 'friendly support.'"

   In June, France helped Russia's delegation restore its credentials at the 
Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, five years after it was 
stripped of voting rights following the annexation of Crimea. Macron has also 
spoken about the prospect of Russia's eventual return to the Group of Seven, 
from which it was purged after annexing Crimea.

   "Russia is the main beneficiary of that situation," Karasev said. "Putin no 
longer has to prove that Ukraine is dangerous and toxic --- Ukrainian and U.S. 
politicians have done the job for him. The Kremlin now just needs to wait until 
the Ukrainian apple falls into its lap, as the U.S., Germany and France all 
have got their share of toxic Ukrainian gifts and got poisoned."


(KR)

 
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