Putin's proposal: Serious diplomacy or just making trouble?

Russian President Vladmir Putin Credit: Reuters

Serious diplomacy or just making trouble?

We should have an answer to that after the next couple of days’ talking in Geneva.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is prepared to stay in Europe until Saturday if necessary to find out whether Russia is serious, and whether Moscow can deliver the co-operation of its client Bashar Assad.

For the past two years or so of civil war in Syria, Russia’s role has been almost entirely negative, delivering ‘niet’ after ‘niet’ to block efforts to put pressure on the Assad regime.

Now, for the first time, Russian President Vladimir Putin finds himself taking the initiative, actually leading a diplomatic effort.

There are least some reasons to hope that he may have quite a lot invested in its success.

First, the proposals the Russians are bringing to Geneva, leaked to the Russian daily Kommersant and reproduced by Le Figaro.

They are proposing a four stage process to rid Syria of it chemical stockpiles:

A young boy affected by the chemical attack on eastern Damascus Credit: Whitehouse.gov

A similar programme was put in place by Muammar Gadaffi when he agreed to rid Libya of its nuclear capabilities a decade or so ago, but that of course was in peacetime.

Conducting such a programme of monitoring, removal and destruction in the middle of a bitter and unpredictable civil war would - to say the least - be challenging.

And that is assuming that the Assad regime is serious when it says that it will co-operate with Moscow on this.

For Russia there is a lot at stake. Even hardliners in Russia have been uncomfortable defending a regime widely believed to have gassed its own people and killed hundreds of children.

Removing the chemical stockpiles would allow them to argue that they had responded to global outrage, and that the world should now allow the conventional war in Syria to take its course.

Russia has long disagreed with western leaders over how best to resolve the crisis in Syria. Credit: Reuters

This is the key point. Russia’s greatest interest in Syria is to protect Assad from Western intervention, and thus allow his regime to survive against the rebel insurgency.

So far Putin’s initiative is achieving both those objectives, with airstrikes for the time being off the table.

If he succeeds in destroying his ally’s weapons of mass destruction, he can be fairly confident that the West will never intervene in Syria, and that Assad - while he may not win - will not be defeated.

But what if, after this diplomatic flurry, we are back to square one? Putin will surely have strengthened Obama’s hand with Congress and at the UN.

The threat of force gave diplomacy a chance, he will argue. If Syria declined to take that chance, then force is the only option.

It may not be enough to sway a reluctant House of Representatives, but it will allow the White House to make a much more powerful case for intervention than it has hitherto.

So there is a big upside for Putin in all this, and he almost certainly has the leverage to bend Assad to his will. We should get some indication of how serious Moscow is by the weekend.