An Obama-Putin Thaw Is in the Making

US wants Russian cooperation on Iran, Syria. Ukraine peace talks are tentatively scheduled. US and Russia foreign ministers, Kerry and Lavrov are talking

Tue, Jan 6, 2015
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M.K. Bhadrakumar is a retired Indian diplomat of 30 years. He was India's ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey.

This article originally appeared at Indian Punchline


The New Year has got off to a flying start with four diplomatic tracks leading the way – four seemingly different, yet interconnected, tracks.

They relate to the Iran nuclear issue, Ukraine, Syria and the overarching crisis in Russia’s relations with the West.

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The Associated Press has reported quoting diplomats that Iran and the US have “tentatively agreed on a formula” for resolving their differences and have drawn up “a catalogue outlining potential accord and differing approaches to remaining disputes,” which are to be discussed at the next round of Iran-six power talks on January 15 in Geneva.

The report estimated that negotiators hoped to reach a deal by March that could be drafted into a final agreement within the stipulated timeline of June 30.

On Ukraine, a four-way telephone conference on Friday involving the foreign ministers of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine has decided that a meeting of the contact group will be held to discuss the ending of the conflict.

A Russian Foreign Ministry statement said:

“The parties resumed their discussion on ways to facilitate a peaceful settlement process in the south-east of Ukraine, including through the implementation of the Minsk agreements.

In this context, they reiterated the need to convene the next meeting of the Contact Group as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile, on Friday, the main Western-backed Syrian opposition groups belonging to the Syrian National Coalition gathered in Istanbul for a three-day conference to discuss the Russian initiative to hold peace talks to broker a solution to the Syrian crisis.

The Russian diplomats have been in touch with them previously and have invited twenty eight Syrian opposition figures to Moscow for talks sometime towards end-January, who include key figures such as Hadi al-Bahra, Moaz al-Khatib and Abdel Basset Sida (who enjoy Saudi support.)

A parallel meeting is expected in Cairo to form a united front for the Moscow talks (which Russia has recommended) under the guidance of the Arab League.

In all the above three diplomatic tracks, Russia figures as key protagonist. (The “formula” on an Iran deal is pinned on Washington’s plans to reduce Tehran’s capacity to make nuclear bombs by committing it to ship to Russia much of its stockpiles of enriched uranium.)

That would partly explain the diplomatic initiative taken by the US Secretary of State John Kerry on January 1 to phone up his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov to convey his New Year greetings.

The Russian media reported that Kerry and Lavrov exchanged views on Ukraine, the situation in Syria and bilateral Russian-American relations.

Clearly, President Barack Obama has set his mind on a grand strategy to involve Russia to commence a keen search for conflict resolution in Ukraine and Syria and to put the necessary underpinnings in place for an agreement with Iran.

Obama would visualize that an overarching normalization process with Russia becomes an absolute pre-requisite if he is to make progress. It may be premature to call this a ‘reset’ but something of the sort could be in the works.

A visit by Kerry to Moscow and a meeting with President Vladimir Putin cannot be ruled out. (See my blog Ice cracking in US-Russia ties.)

Of course, the US-Russia ties have taken a severe beating through last year and it may take time to mend them, and, besides, don’t overlook the bruised egos on both sides.

But, on the other hand, working together on various fronts – Syria, Iran, Ukraine – would also enable the two powers to address common concerns and to understand each other’s intentions better.

To be sure, behind the cloud cover of rhetoric, cool heads must be reflecting already in both Washington and Moscow over what caused the deep chill that descended on the ties through 2014.

The US can tighten the screws on Russia further only by risking cracks in the trans-Atlantic partnership and, perhaps, provoking more defiance from Russia.

On the other hand, Russia’s strategic defiance is damaging the country’s economy and that could affect the country’s stability in the medium term.

The point is, at the end of the day, Washington succeeded in getting a leadership of its choice installed in Kiev, but then, Ukraine has also been rendered a basket case unworthy of NATO membership in a conceivable future, and unviable and unstable so long as a big helping hand is not forthcoming from Moscow.

As for Moscow, it got Crimea to rejoin Mother Russia alright, but the country’s dreams of becoming a top-class player with comprehensive national power by the end of this decade may not be realizable.

Henry Kissinger once said that the absence of alternatives clears the mind marvelously, and it may hold good in this case.

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