"Russia wants everyone to understand that there can be no peace, or even substantial improvement of conditions in the Middle East, if Russia is not at the top table in a critical condition," Sherr says. "Russia is letting everyone know: 'We are the country in the key role. We are the only country here who can talk to all the parties that matter.'"
"Iran is the big prize," Gati agrees. "That's what we keep forgetting."
Putin's recent offers to build a second nuclear reactor at Iran's Bushehr nuclear plant, as well as supply Iran with S-300 air defense missile systems, are part of Putin's overall strategy in the region, Gati says. "I think that was a way of saying to the Iranians: 'Don't rush to open up to the Americans. We can provide things now and you don't have to change internally. You don't have to meet any demands. If you start negotiations with the Americans what's going to happen is, 'What are you doing at home? What are your policies toward Israel?'"
Stent heard something new -- and concerning -- from Russia's foreign minister, who also spoke at the Valdai conference. "We also heard from Mr. [Sergey] Lavrov that maybe we won't get all the chemical weapons from Syria, we may get some of them."
"I'm sure that the U.S. condition on this is that we have to get all of them," Stent says. "If you only get some of them, then you really haven't achieved your objective. So there are many ways this can come unstuck."
All three experts concur: the agreement on Syria's chemical weapons has set loose an avalanche of diplomatic moves that could have profound implications for Russia and the West.
"This step arose suddenly, says Sherr. "It is, in fact, an improvisation, but it stems from something the Russians are very good at, which is studying the other side, in this case us, very carefully, studying the logic of our positions, studying our mistakes, and seizing an opening when it suddenly appears. And that's what they have done."
Russia pounced on a diplomatic opportunity, Gati says, but it could turn out to be a challenge for Moscow, precisely because Russia is not used to making the first move. "And it will be hard for America," she says, "because we are usually the ones putting out the ideas, leading the parade, and finally, usually getting the solutions. In this case, that hasn't happened. Inaction hasn't worked. The American policy hasn't worked. And now we're going to see if the Russian one does."
Syria, she says, could be a unique instance where the Russians take the lead, or it might be a harbinger of things to come. "One thing that will be very interesting to watch," she says, " is whether or not it leads to the development of some ideas for some type of new type of relationship with the United States, what I would call 'Reset a la Russe.'"
Russia's last-minute move
It's too early to predict whether the Russian proposal will help bring the war in Syria to an end. But several Russia experts at the Valdai conference criticize Russia for not using its influence at the outset of the conflict to help stop it.
"Before the opposition was militarized, before the influx of foreign fighters, before the dominance of jihadists, before 100,000 people were killed, before there were half a million refugees," says Sherr, "the country that had the most convincing combination of nonmilitary means of pressure to apply against Assad to produce meaningful changes and compromises, was Russia. And those means were not used."
"So Russia does have a considerable responsibility for how this conflict has evolved. Whether they recognize that responsibility or not, anyone on the outside assessing the conflict today or in the future will have to come to that conclusion. They are at least as responsible for everything which has gone awry here as the United States and some other significant actors."