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At UN, Putin talks tough against IS. Will the West work with him? (+video)

The Russian president bluntly blamed the US for the chaos in the Middle East. But his plan for an alliance against IS may still find some listeners in the West.

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    Russian President President Vladimir Putin addresses the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters on Monday.
    Mary Altaffer/AP
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Vladimir Putin made the offer everyone expected when he took to the UN General Assembly podium on Monday.

He proposed that Russia and its allies join forces with the West in a grand anti-terrorist alliance, which he likened to World War II's anti-Hitler coalition, to focus on the single overriding goal of defeating IS and Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria.

But if anyone thought Mr. Putin might come to the UN in a conciliatory mood, they were disappointed.

In a speech that sounded more like a prosecutor's than a diplomat's, Mr. Putin laid blame for the current state of chaos in the Middle East at the feet of the US and the West – in a tone which Russian experts concede will likely undermine progress at a meeting with President Obama this afternoon.

But they also say they have seen signs that the US is softening on its previously resolute stand against Syrian President and Russian ally Bashar al-Assad. Moreover, Putin's hard tone may have been meant less for an international audience than to bolster support back home in Russia as the country prepares for its first military operation outside the post-Soviet sphere since the Afghanistan war in the 1980s.

'Zones of chaos'

Repeating accusations he has made before, Putin said that the West had destabilized the Middle East through a series of botched attempts to export democratic revolution to Iraq, Libya, and Syria. The resulting "zone of chaos" enabled the rise of extremist jihadism and triggered the wave of refugees now seeking safe haven in Europe.

The only way out now, he argued, is to bolster the forces that are actually fighting IS on the ground, which Putin listed as the governments of Syria, Iraq, and the Kurdish militias. "We believe it is a great mistake to reject cooperation with the legitimate government of Syria," he said. At the same podium, Obama earlier rejected such cooperation and labeled Mr. Assad a "tyrant." 

Some Russian experts say that Putin's truculent tone will probably not help as he sits down with Obama to talk details of cooperation around Syria, nor when it comes to getting support for a Russian-authored Security Council resolution due to be put forward on Wednesday.

"The problem is not that Putin's views on Syria lack logic, but that they are put forward by a leader who has lost all credibility with the West," says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist for the Moscow business daily Kommersant. "He needs to be seen as a partner, and as long as he presents himself as an adversary, his words will have no effect."

Putin's grand plan

Putin offered no details of how an anti-terrorist alliance would work in practice. So far, Russia has stepped up its supplies of military hardware to Syria, and established a forward air base near Latakia, with a couple dozen ground attack aircraft and a marine defense force of 500 men. It has also created an "intelligence-sharing hub" with Iran, Syria, and Iraq, based in Baghdad, which experts say could form the core of a wider Russian-led alliance in the region.

"Right now we basically have two separate coalitions fighting IS, one led by the US and the other by Russia, and at the very least they should not conflict," says Mr. Strokan. "It's a really delicate moment, and it will require a lot of diplomatic wisdom to manage it."

Putin probably has several objectives, Russian experts say, the first of which is to position Moscow as a key arbiter of Syria's fate at a time when the regime is weakening. Russia has said all along that it is not wedded to Assad but is simply supporting the "legitimate government of Syria" against a terrorist rebellion, an argument Putin rehearsed Sunday in a lengthy interview with CBS.

Russia's draft resolution for the Security Council reportedly proposes a "two-track" process in Syria: one to defeat IS, the second to seek a negotiated settlement between the Assad regime and at least its moderate rebel opponents. Russian experts say that in recent days they have noticed a distinct change in European and US leaders' tones on Assad's future.

"I think Americans will have a hard time, psychologically, walking back some of the unequivocal things they said back when it really looked like Assad's days were numbered," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a Moscow-based foreign policy journal. "But we see a lot of new nuances appearing, which gives the impression that they now realize that Assad will have to be part of any serious peace process, even if the expectation is that he will eventually leave."

Playing to a domestic audience?

Another Putin objective is to bring along the Russian public, who are tired of war in next door Ukraine, with what can be presented as a more clear-cut fight against forces of evil in Syria. All major Russian TV channels carried Putin's UN speech live, and he may have adopted his tough tone for the sake of that domestic audience.

"This will be very different from Ukraine, where Russia just denied its direct involvement," says Mr. Lukyanov. "Here Russia is engaging in a distant conflict for the first time in the post-Soviet era, in an effort to get back to the global stage. Moscow will definitely be emphasizing its role, stressing not just its words but that it has military facts on the ground in Syria."

Yet another concern is Russia's own Muslim community, and fears that a spreading IS could inspire local militants in the north Caucasus.

"Putin says that fighting IS in Syria is about defending Russia from international terrorism, and Russians do believe him," says Andrei Kolesnikov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "This has its PR aspect to it, but it's also a real problem. It's quite possible that Putin honestly does believe it's necessary to get involved in Syria in order to defend Russia."

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