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Why Putin just proposed an "anti-Hitler coalition," but to fight ISIS

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.
  1. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his address on Monday to the United Nations General Assembly, called for a new global effort to fight ISIS and other terrorist groups.
  2. Putin called for the UN Security Council to meet and draft a resolution that would coordinate this effort. He said it should be "similar to the anti-Hitler coalition," the point being that the US and Russia should get over their differences and work together against ISIS.
  3. What he's really doing here is trying to pull the US closer to Russia's policy of propping up Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, by positioning a pro-Assad coalition as the best way to fight terrorism, and by conflating all Syrian rebels with ISIS.

Why Putin is talking so much about terrorism

Hint: It has a lot to do with this guy. (Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

It's true that Russia has legitimate concerns about terrorism — the country has fought Islamist extremists in Chechnya, and a number of ISIS fighters are of Chechen origin. Putin has, since taking power in 2000, highlighted counterterrorism as an area where the West and Russia can cooperate.

But this also seems designed to pull the US and other Western powers toward Russia's position on Syria, which states that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad is the only viable ally against extremism there and should thus be embraced as an ally rather than treated as part of the problem. The US is unlikely to join Putin in treating Assad as an ally; Obama, in his UN speech, said the Syrian leader has to go. But perhaps the Russian leader hopes he can coax the US a little closer to tolerating Assad.

Right now, Bashar al-Assad's government is in trouble: It lost 16 percent of its remaining territory in the first half of 2015 alone, and is increasingly dependent on external support for survival. Most of the assistance comes from Iran, but Russia has been a longtime backer as well. In the past two weeks, Russia has sent several hundred troops to Syria to guard its contingent of air power there, and has signed a new intelligence sharing agreement with Iraq and Iran on ISIS.

Putin compared his plan to the "anti-Hitler coalition" of World War II. Even though the US and the Soviet Union disagreed about much, they were willing to come together to fight a greater common enemy.

Obama, for his part, said in his own UN speech that he would be willing to work with Russia and Iran on resolving Syria's war, though he also stated that Assad would have to go in any acceptable peace deal. So both leaders are looking for some way to work together, though the common ground is fairly limited.

Obama and Putin are scheduled to meet later on Monday afternoon. They'll surely discuss Syria then and may try to see whether there's a way to find common interests there.