During his year-end press conference, Russian Presdient Vladimir Putin appeared to soften the Russian rhetoric about Syria and Ukraine, and even suggested that some sort of reconciliation might be possible with the people of Turkey, Georgia and Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin during his annual press conference with journalists. Photo: RG

For a very different take read: "Why Putin emphasized the role of Syria at his year-end press conference"

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s year-end press conference is always one of the most anticipated events of the year. This time it was a good chance to elaborate more on the topics mentioned in his recent presidential address to the Federal Assembly and to explain once again Russia’s position on the key international issues in a much less formal way. Putin did not make any surprises, but conveyed in a clear manner some fundamental foreign policy issues for Moscow.

There are a few things to note about the event. First of all, Putin made a clear distinction between countries and their leaders. It seemed that he was deliberately avoiding any impersonalization of relations. Obviously, Russia has been known for putting great emphasis on good ties between the heads of states as a foreign policy tool – this has been a marked feature of Putin’s presidency. Now the message was different – we are ready for cooperation with the people of Turkey, Ukraine, Georgia, even though they unfortunately have unfriendly governments.

There may be several reasons for that. One of the explanations would be the disillusion about the role of leaders and their decision-making capacity in countries outside Russia – they come and go and have limited ability for domestic and, hence, foreign policy maneuvering. Unlike the establishment or the institutions, the politicians are much more restrained. Another factor would be the disappointment and spoiled relations with former partners, such as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Recommended: "What Putin said – and didn't say – in his Federal Assembly address"

Finally, it seems to be a positive sign for public diplomacy – Putin tried to emphasize that business or humanitarian ties can and should develop, despite the lack of political will of the regimes. There is no need to exert pressure on Turkish companies and students in Russia.

There is a possibility of resuming tourist flows to Egypt if the country agrees to cooperate more on security. There is a chance of lifting the visa regime with Georgia. And even Ukraine as “brother nation”  will get the status of most favored nation in mutual trade, and commerce will not be blocked.

Another important result of the conference is the proof that Russia is out of isolation. The number of foreign media present, as well as their genuine interest in the views of the Russian president, indicate that Moscow in the last few months has succeeded in overcoming the Western policy of marginalizing it. The fact that a significant part of the three-hour interview was devoted to global matters is also indicative.

The rhetoric of Putin demonstrates that Moscow would like to position itself as an open country, ready for reasonable partnerships and compromises on most of the issues. The arguments with respect to the EU trade association with Ukraine, or the situation in Syria were rational, not emotional.

Moreover, they emphasize the consistency of the Russian position – from permanent denial of forced change of regimes to normal economic reasoning with respect to relations with Ukraine. Another trait of discourse is Russia’s appeal to justice – Moscow allegedly does not claim any privileges, but rather focuses on equal terms and fair interpretations of the accords, e.g. the Minsk agreements.

Also read: "Putin's Victory Day speeches as clues to Russia's foreign policy"

Finally, the tone with respect to the United States has become more moderate. There were no accusations, Washington was not condemned for supporting “improper” forces in the Middle East, there was no conspiracy thinking pertaining to the behavior of Turkey or oil smuggling from Syria and Iraq. Besides, the Russian President even stressed that Moscow is willing to work with anyone who will be in power in the U.S. after the elections.

It seems that the two parties are actively seeking political compromise on conflict resolution in Syria and have progressed in this area. At least, Putin openly expressed his support to the U.S. draft of the UN resolution and noted the key steps to a settlement –  a constitution, internationally recognized monitoring of elections and then power change, if necessary. Russia is allegedly even ready for not stationing a permanent base in Latakia and will limit it support to the period of the offensive of the Syrian army and its allies from the moderate opposition.

Thus, Putin’s press conference highlighted key foreign policy issues for Russia for 2016 and marked the trend for modest rapprochement on tactical issues between Moscow and the West.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.