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President Obama And Putin To Meet For The First Time In 2 Years


When President Obama first met Vladimir Putin in 2009, the two men shared tea and pastries and a lengthy conversation in the prime minister's garden outside Moscow. But after Russia annexed Crimea, the White House froze Putin out. The two have barely spoken sense. Russia's military buildup in Syrian, sending soldiers and weapons, has changed things. Tomorrow at the U.N., Presidents Obama and Putin will sit down together for the first time in two years. We're joined by former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul to talk about this important relationship.

Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: First off, how concerned is the U.S. about Russia's deployment of resources, of fighter aircraft in particular, inside of Syria?

MCFAUL: Oh, I think the administration's very concerned. This is a major escalation. Second, they really don't understand the objective - the military objective, the political objective. And that's why the president, I think, has decided to meet directly with President Putin tomorrow to get a better understanding exactly what he's trying to do in Syria.

MARTIN: So an understanding, that's one objective. But what, practically, do you think President Obama will be looking for from President Putin?

MCFAUL: Well, what he wants and what he thinks will happen, I think, are probably two different things. What he would like and what the administration would like is Russia's support for somehow pushing forward a political transition in Syria. When I was in the government, we tried this several times with the Russians, and we failed. But the situation's more dire. Russia, I think, understands that just backing Assad, in the way that they have done for several years, hasn't worked. So they're going to try and attempt that process again. What I think will occur is probably exactly what occurred the last time, which is we'll agree to disagree about how to move forward in terms of a political transition in Syria.

MARTIN: What is Vladimir Putin expecting from the meeting?

MCFAUL: Well, in some ways he's already achieved his objectives. The very fact that they're having the meeting is a public-relations achievement for him back home. The very fact that you and I are talking about Syria in this interview instead of Ukraine is his second objective. And so the actual contours of what might happen, I think, are not as important for those two immediate achievements. That said, he does want to cooperate with the West, with the United States in some kind of grand coalition to defeat ISIS. And any hints at that after the meeting, I think, would be considered a big breakthrough for him.

MARTIN: Is he feeling isolated? I mean, he has been frozen out of the international community for annexing Crimea. A lot of people at the U.N., where he'll be speaking, are not pleased about the Russian military buildup in Syria. Is he craving more credibility on the national stage, on the global stage?

MCFAUL: You know, I don't think President Putin wants credibility, right? He's not looking for affirmation and some kind of agreement that he's a good guy. But he does want to be a player in the international system. He wants to be in the action. And that's why he's forced the issue in Syria. He has forced himself into this crisis, and he's forced everybody else to engage with him. And in that respect, he does want to be part of the great powers managing international issues around the world.

MARTIN: Vladimir Putin says that he's helping support the government forces aligned with President Bashar al-Assad in Syria in order to prevent ISIS from gaining a stronger foothold in the region. Does he have a point? Is he making a difference in the fight against ISIS?

MCFAUL: Well, so far, no. They've done nothing. Let's be clear about that. They put in equipment to possibly do something, but we're doing the bombing right now. We're the one leading the fight in terms of an air campaign against ISIS with our coalition partners. Russia has done nothing. The second, though, important historical point to remember is that there would be no ISIS without Assad being in power. And the Russian position of supporting Assad no matter what, as they've done for the last four years, and being unwilling to engage with us and other members of the international community to try to forge a political solution there has been part of what's caused this tragedy.

MARTIN: Former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. He's now a political science professor at Stanford. Thanks so much for talking with us.

MCFAUL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.