Wed, 14 Oct 2015 12:14 UTC
Tell us who not to pound and we won’t pound them, Russian president Vladimir Putin said. He was paraphrasing from a conversation he says his government had recently with Washington about Syria.
Russia is bombing Washington’s friends; an anti-Assad crowd that Putin believes is as bad news as ISIS. His view is not popular in the U.S..
But here in Russia, this is the most popular man alive. People crowd into a room to hear him. It’s standing room only in fact. Before he comes onto the stage at the Crown Plaza Hotel convention center in Moscow, it’s pin-drop silence. Then, all rise.
This is the most Americans have seen or heard of the Russian military since the 1980s, only this time the Russian in charge is more charismatic. Putin knows how to get his point across. It’s not charm, necessarily. He’s kissing no one’s behind. It’s Putin straight talk… believe it or disbelieve it. Tuesday was Putin’s “charm offensive” to global investors, many of whom traveled to Moscow to hear Putin out. He’s helped push his country into pariah state status, at least through a Western looking glass.
Everyone in attendance, all 700-and-change, and nearly double last year’s Russia Calling! event by VTB Capital, pounded Putin on Syria, Ukraine and the economy. One after the other, it was a veritable carpet bombing of bad news and a with all due respect, sir blame. It started when Geoff Cutmore, a CNBC Squawk Box reporter based in Europe, asked him about his military’s role in Syria and its impact on the investment climate in Russia.
You have to see it to believe. Because to watch Putin is, oddly, to kind of respect him, if not admire him. The man is a master. He’s the perfect Western villain, of course. He is the guy James Bond can’t bring down.
Cutmore shoots. There’s a short moment of silence, as if all the Russians in the room suddenly spotted a UFO. Putin shrugs. It’s a perceptible, here we go again, thing he does with his body. There’s the inevitable nervous laughter from those in attendance. And then the Russian president leans forward and puts Cutmore on the receiving end of a Putin info bomb.
“You’ve mixed apples and oranges together on Syria and investment climate. Although everything is interconnected, there are no direct links here,” Putin said. While Syria may be a new military mission, Russia’s support of anti-Kyiv rebels in Eastern Ukraine has soured sentiment and slapped sanctions on the Russian economy. Syria, on the other hand, did not factor into the recent six month extension of Russia sanctions by the United States.
Still, you can see the wheels of Putin’s ex-KGB mind spinning. He sees Washington willing to put up a fight.
“I’m not going to get into debates here, but I will tell you that in Syria, what we are doing there is we are trying to fight terrorism, which is a threat to the United States and to Russia and to Europe without any exaggeration,” he said, to some applause.
But the money shot was when he said that his government has been in touch with Washington recently over this matter. And he alleges he’s gone nowhere fast with his government’s requests.
He gets that the U.S. is not happy with Russia’s bombing U.S-funded anti-Assad groups. So he’s claimed to have asked the U.S. government where not to bomb. Maybe not in those exact words, but the gist Putin got across was that Moscow is speaking with Washington on Syria, but Washington isn’t listening.
“My conversation with Obama in New York was quite detailed and sincere,” he said of their meeting at the United Nations General Assembly last month. “As of today, it is unfortunate that we only have cooperation between our military and only in matters of tactical nature, like comparing friend or foe signals on our aircraft. This is not enough. I think that if we want to be efficient, not just bombing, if we want to have a political settlement in Syria, which is what the U.S. wants, then we should encourage the people there to work together between themselves and work with those that we can influence. Get them to work with us and the U.S. and Europe and (figure out what happens with Syrian leader Bashar Assad), but no one wants to have that meeting. We have received no answer as of today,” he said about setting up a dialogue between what Washington refers to as the “moderate” forces at work against Assad.
Putin said that the U.S. has already admitted that its support of the Free Syrian Army was a failure. Their weapons have ended up into the hands of jihadis. It’s not too far of a stretch for the Pentagon to look in the rear view mirror and remember what happened the last time the U.S. spent time and treasure funding jihadis against a government it didn’t like. One of their leaders ended up orchestrating an attack on the Pentagon, and permanently changed the New York skyline.
“This is not a rhetorical question,” Putin told Cutmore about the U.S. suspending its support of the Free Syrian Army.“This is a fact. We are working with the U.S. because we want to show respect and cooperate with them, but they do not want to cooperate with us. And when we ask them, ‘what targets in Syria should we not attack?’ They don’t tell us. This is not joke. I tell them, give me targets that I shouldn’t pound. There’s no response. Do you have an answer for that? Because I do not.”
Putin spent the most time responding to Cutmore’s question than that of the roughly 12 American and British fund managers expressing concern about capital controls and sanctions impact on Russia’s economy.
An investor with Prosperity Capital, a London-based investment firm specializing in Russia and ex-Soviet states, asked if Syria would hurt Russian-Turkish relations. The two countries are due to sign a large pipeline deal involving Gazprom , Russia’s biggest gas energy company.
“Our militaries are talking this out,” Putin said. “We consider Turkey our friend.”
It is unclear whether Putin can say the same about the U.S. at the moment. Russians, on the other hand, are marginally optimistic that Russia and the U.S. will work things out.
A poll published on Oct. 13 by the Levada Center in Moscow showed that 44% said “probably yes” that Russia and the U.S. would find common ground on the Syria crisis. Another 5% said “yes”. The next biggest concentration of votes was in the “probably no” camp, with 25% saying so. A total of 21% said it was still too difficult to say.
The U.S. was supposed to “reset” Russia relations under Obama. But a successful lobbying effort by investment banker Bill Browder led to the passing of the Magnitsky Act. The ruling, named of Browder’s attorney Sergei Magnitsky, a man who died in a Russian prison, banned those Russians involved in his mistreatment from traveling to the U.S. or opening American bank accounts. That soured relations. Browder was well known in Russia and was kicked out of the country for what he says were drummed up charges against his firm, Hermitage Capital. Like the recent sanctions, Russia quickly retaliated and banned “Iraq War criminals” from traveling to Russia. Dick Cheney was on the list.