Russia Savors U.S. Missteps in Syria, and Seizes Opportunity

MOSCOW — These have been disastrous weeks for American foreign policy, a popular presenter on Russia’s state television told viewers on Sunday night with an I-told-you-so smirk.

The United States essentially turned its back on Ukraine amid the impeachment inquiry, TV host Dmitri Kiselyov said in his marquee weekly show. Then, Washington abandoned the Syrian Kurds.

“The Kurds themselves again picked the wrong patron,” Mr. Kiselyov said. “The United States, of course, is an unreliable partner.”

As the Middle East reels from President Trump’s erratic foreign policy, Russia is savoring a fresh chance to build its status as a resurgent world power and cast itself as a force for stability. The withdrawal of United States troops from northeastern Syria, coupled with Turkey’s incursion, is allowing Russia to play the part of responsible peacemaker and to present a contrast to what many in the region see as unstable leadership from Washington.

It’s too soon to tell whether Russia will be able to manage the new volatility in Syria, just as it’s not clear if the impeachment furor over Ukraine will help the Kremlin’s interests in Eastern Europe. But as Russian President Vladimir V. Putin landed in Saudi Arabia Monday for a state visit to one of America’s most important allies, it appeared clear that Mr. Trump’s moves in recent months were helping him make the case that Moscow, not Washington, was the more dependable actor on the world stage.

Revelations of White House pressure on President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to launch investigations that could help Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign provided new fodder for long-running Kremlin arguments about the dangers of doing business with the United States.

Ukrainian officials who counted on the United States for help have now become pawns both for Republicans who want to damage former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Democrats who want to impeach Mr. Trump, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev said this month.

“I certainly don’t envy Mr. Zelensky,” Mr. Medvedev said in a televised interview. “He’s found himself between the rock of the Democratic Party and the hard place of the Republican Party.”

In Syria, Russia stuck by its ally, President Bashar al-Assad, even as the American strategy shifted. Russia’s often brutal airstrikes against the Assad regime’s foes helped turn the tide in the Syrian war and establish Moscow as a key power player in the Middle East.

As if to drive home the point, Mr. Putin landed in Riyadh on Monday for a rare state visit to Saudi Arabia, one of America’s closest allies in the region. His armored limousine flanked by an honorary Saudi horse guard, Mr. Putin arrived for talks with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman focusing on regional security, oil prices and business deals.

“Russia is becoming an important player in the region — whether one likes it or not, it is a fact,” Prince Khalid bin Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, said in a public discussion at a London think tank on Monday. “The Russians do to a certain extent understand the East better than the West does.”

The Syrian Kurds, previously allied with the United States in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria, announced a new deal on Sunday with the Russian-backed government of Mr. Assad in Damascus. The agreement came after Mr. Trump abruptly withdrew American troops in the region and Turkey mounted an incursion into Syrian Kurdish territory.

Turkey appears to have coordinated its actions to some extent with the Russians, who are now left to manage any potential clash between Turkey — which considers some of the Syrian Kurdish fighters terrorists — and Mr. Assad’s forces now moving into Kurdish territory.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey spoke with Mr. Putin by phone last week before mounting the invasion, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov said on Monday that lines of communication were open between the Russian and Turkish militaries.

In the short term, Mr. Trump’s withdrawal is a win for Russia because it expands the territory under Mr. Assad’s control. Going forward, the situation presents new tests and potential rewards for Russia’s military and foreign policy apparatus, which critics say is already overextended.

Russia will have to confront the threat posed by Islamic State militants and supporters who had been detained by the Kurds and are now at risk of fleeing. Some relatives of Islamic State fighters have already fled detention.

Mr. Putin said last week that thousands of those fighters originally hail from Russia and other former Soviet republics, presenting a serious security risk because they may seek to return home.

Russia will also have to broker a longer-term agreement between Damascus and the Kurds while working to prevent fighting between Mr. Erdogan’s and Mr. Assad’s forces, said Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a research group that advises the Kremlin.

“There are a lot of pitfalls here and it’s not totally clear how to realize this, but it would be an achievement,” Mr. Kortunov said. “It would demonstrate a certain superiority of Russian tactics over the American, and this would be noted in the region, and not only in the region.”

To be sure, even if developments in Syria and Ukraine present Mr. Putin with tactical and propaganda victories, his aggressive foreign policy of recent years means that Russia’s image will likely remain tarnished in much of the world for a long time to come.

In Ukraine, for all the discomfort with Mr. Trump’s actions, Russia is still largely viewed as a hostile, occupying power. In Western Europe and the United States, Russian election interference and assassination campaigns shocked many voters. And people around the world were horrified by Russia’s air campaign in Syria, which included the deliberate bombing of hospitals.

But Mr. Putin appears to be betting that he can boost Russia’s global standing by playing to other countries’ individual interests in a world in which the Trump administration’s moves have left many traditional American allies in dismay.

“Russia will never be friends with one country against another,” Mr. Putin said in an interview with two Arab news networks and the Kremlin-controlled channel RT Arabic that aired on Sunday. “We build bilateral relations that rely on positive trends generated by our contacts; we do not build alliances against anyone.”

David Kirkpatrick contributed reporting from London.

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