Vladimir Putin really wants to talk to Barack Obama.
Earlier this month, Moscow suggested Russian and U.S. military officials discuss Syria, where Russia recently increased its military presence. Now, the Russian president has asked to meet with his American counterpart while they’re both in New York next week for the United Nations General Assembly, and the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine will no doubt dominate their conversation.
Washington accepted both offers, breaking from its posture toward Moscow that for the past year has involved diplomatic isolation and sanctions, sanctions, and more sanctions. The last time Obama and Putin met face-to-face was in November 2014, when they spoke on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing. Before that, in June, they bumped into each other at lunch at the G-7 summit in Brussels. The leaders have spoken by phone a few times, most recently in July about the Iran deal—both the U.S. and Russia were part of the team of six countries that negotiated with the Islamic Republic—but until now there had been no effort on either side to schedule a formal meeting.
For Putin, the meeting is a chance to “get back in the West’s good graces in a hurry, or at least change the conversation,” explain Neil MacFarquhar and Andrew Kramer in The New York Times. For Obama, “it would be irresponsible not to test whether we can make progress through high-level engagement with the Russians,” an administration official told USA Today in an explanation of the president’s acceptance of the latest offer.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea—one of the reasons for Obama and Putin’s frosty relationship—can’t be undone. The White House knows this, and aside from imposing sanctions more Russian banks and giving Ukraine more military equipment, there’s not much the administration can do to influence the conflict there.
Syria is another story. Moscow and Washington both recognize the grave threat of the Islamic State, but they don’t agree on how to fight it. A U.S.-led coalition of European and Middle Eastern nations launched airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria last fall. Russia has acted alone, arming President Bashar al-Assad’s forces with weapons and warplanes to use against the Islamic State and other groups this month. Russia’s new military buildup inside Syria has made U.S. officials wary. But the fight against the Islamic State has become a global one, and the U.S. may not be able to isolate Russia in the way it has in response to the Ukraine crisis.
The same goes for the approach to the Syrian civil war, which has claimed more than 200,000 lives in nearly five years. The U.S. and Russia both say they want a diplomatic solution to the conflict, but are divided over the path to that solution. The U.S. wants Assad gone, while Moscow is a longtime ally of the Syrian leader.
For now, next week’s meeting is just that—a meeting. It may be the last for another stretch of months, or it could signal the first thaw of the U.S. and Russia’s relationship. The White House is hesitant, making sure to point out the “profound differences with Moscow” in its statement about accepting Putin’s offer. With U.S.-Russia relations these days, it’s always a wait-and-see game.