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US Wants End to Standoff, but for Russia to Make All the Concessions. Moscow Stays Cool

John Kerry wheels out Henry Kissinger to talk to Putin but finds Russia's stance remains unchanged

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

The very well-informed article in Bloomberg attached below shows why the Obama administration’s policy of confrontation with Russia quite simply cannot be sustained over the long term.

Briefly, as the article shows, Russia is simply too big and too powerful to be ignored and the US needs Russia’s cooperation in too many areas to be able to get by without it. 

Not surprisingly therefore there are already powerful voices within the US government and its foreign affairs bureaucracy that are urgently looking for ways to resume dialogue with Russia and behind the scenes this is now the policy.

In saying this a few points should be made about the Bloomberg article:

First, there is no doubt that the contents of the article are true. 

It is inconceivable that a publication like Bloomberg would report that the US National Security Council “has been working behind the scenes for months to forge a new working relationship with Russia” if that were not the case. 

There has been no denial of the truth of what is written in the article on the part of the US administration despite a request for a comment to the White House, which all but confirms its contents are true. 

In fact the strong probability is that the source of the article was the administration itself (or at least its more moderate and realistic officials) and that it is intended as a signal to the Russians, who will have undoubtedly noted its existence and who will have been separately informed by the administration of the truth of its contents.  

Second, though the article has attracted little notice in the Anglophone world, this is not true elsewhere. I was in Greece over the New Year where the article was being widely discussed and this is certainly true in other places as well.

As it happens reports I heard whilst in Greece were that Kissinger did indeed contact the Russians on the administration’s behalf as the article says but that he found Putin immoveable and got nowhere. I have no way of knowing whether that is true or not.

Third, the article’s description of Kerry as the leading moderate within the US administration may surprise many people given that he is widely held to be the administration’s leading hardliner.

Kerry’s previously good working relationship with Lavrov before Ukrainian crisis started was however a widely acknowledged fact as is the intense mutual dislike between Obama and Putin for which incidentally it is Obama who bears the primary responsibility.

Obama is this administration’s principal anti-Russian hawk not Kerry. It is therefore entirely possible given the discipline of office that Kerry has been put in a position of conducting a policy that in private he doesn’t agree with.

Many have commented on the bizarre nature - almost amounting to cognitive dissonance - of some of Kerry’s comments about Russia and Ukraine. If he is unhappy with the policy that might explain them. If so, then the article’s claim that it is Kerry who is taking the lead in looking for a way out may be true.

If the article, however, shows why the present policy of confrontation with Russia cannot be sustained over the long term, it also shows why it will be extremely difficult for the US to change it and why this is unlikely to happen any time soon. For whilst the US understands that it needs Russia’s help on a range of issues it continues to demand (and expect) that that help be provided on US terms.

Thus rather than take the initiative in improving relations with Russia by dropping the sanctions or by taking serious steps to de-escalate the Ukrainian crisis - for example by putting pressure on the Ukrainian government to negotiate seriously with its opponents as it has repeatedly committed itself to do - it is Russia that the US looks to to take all the necessary steps to achieve the improvement in relations.  

Bizarrely, the US even seems to expect Russia to go on providing the US with the help it wants even as the US continues to “punish” Russia and be rude about it. Nothing illustrates the extraordinary sense of entitlement that is behind so many of the problems with US policy than this strange thinking. Unsurprisingly given its existence, the US then comes away baffled and angry when Russia says no.

Unfortunately what this means is that at least in the short term relations between the US and Russia are likely to go on getting worse rather than better.  

In a situation where the US both needs and believes that it is entitled to Russia’s help but is prepared to make no concessions in order to obtain it, the most likely response when Russia refuses to provide its help will be for the US to ramp up pressure on Russia even more so as to force Russia to give the US the help it wants.  

There is also unfortunately the very real possibility that as the US becomes increasingly exasperated with a Russian government that refuses to do what it wants, that it will try to change that government to one the US thinks more suitable.

That after all has been the consistent pattern of US behaviour both with regard to Russia and in other places. That such an approach can only make relations worse is not something that has deterred the US in the past or which is likely to do so now. 

The recent moves within the US administration as reported by Bloomberg therefore mean (1) that the present policy of confrontation with Russia cannot be sustained for very long and that some sort of detente or rapprochement with Russia is only a matter of time and (2) that in the short term relations will get worse rather than better.  

In summary, the Russians will win the latest confrontation with the US provided they keep their nerve during the very rocky period that lies immediately ahead.

From Bloomberg:

President Barack Obama's administration has been working behind the scenes for months to forge a new working relationship with Russia, despite the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown little interest in repairing relations with Washington or halting his aggression in neighboring Ukraine.

This month, Obama's National Security Council finished an extensive and comprehensive review of U.S policy toward Russia that included dozens of meetings and input from the State Department, Defense Department and several other agencies, according to three senior administration officials. At the end of the sometimes-contentious process, Obama made a decision to continue to look for ways to work with Russia on a host of bilateral and international issues while also offering Putin a way out of the stalemate over the crisis in Ukraine.

“I don’t think that anybody at this point is under the impression that a wholesale reset of our relationship is possible at this time, but we might as well test out what they are actually willing to do,” a senior administration official told me. “Our theory of this all along has been, let's see what’s there. Regardless of the likelihood of success.”

Leading the charge has been Secretary of State John Kerry. This fall, Kerry even proposed going to Moscow and meeting with Putin directly. The negotiations over Kerry’s trip got to the point of scheduling, but ultimately were scuttled because there was little prospect of demonstrable progress.

In a separate attempt at outreach, the White House turned to an old friend of Putin’s for help. The White House called on former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to discuss having him call Putin directly, according to two officials. It’s unclear whether Kissinger actually made the call. The White House and Kissinger both refused to comment for this column.

Kerry has been the point man on dealing with Russia because his close relationship with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov represents the last remaining functional diplomatic channel between Washington and Moscow. They meet often, often without any staff members present, and talk on the phone regularly. Obama and Putin, on the other hand, are known to have an intense dislike for each other and very rarely speak.

In several conversations with Lavrov, Kerry has floated an offer to Russia that would pave the way for a partial release of some of the most onerous economic sanctions. Kerry’s conditions included Russia adhering to September's Minsk agreement and ceasing direct military support for the Ukrainian separatists. The issue of Crimea would be set aside for the time being, and some of the initial sanctions that were put in place after Crimea’s annexation would be kept in place.

“We are willing to isolate the issues of Donetsk and Luhansk from the issue of Crimea,” another senior administration official told me, naming two regions in Eastern Ukraine under separatist control.

“If there was a settlement on Donetsk and Luhansk, there could be a removal of some sanctions while maintaining sanctions with regard to Crimea. That represents a way forward for Putin.”

Meanwhile, Kerry has been proposing increased U.S.-Russian cooperation on a wide range of international issues. Earlier this month, he invited Lavrov to a last-minute diplomatic confab in Rome to discuss the the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

After one meeting with Lavrov in Paris in October, Kerry announced that he had discussed potential U.S.-Russian cooperation on Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Yemen. But the apparent warming was overshadowed by Lavrov’s quick denial of Kerry’s claim that Russia had agreed to assist in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State in Iraq.

Kerry has seemed more enthusiastic about mending ties with Russia than Obama himself. After the president gave a blistering critique of Russian behavior in a major United Nations speech, saying that “Russian aggression in Europe recalls the days when large nations trampled small ones in pursuit of territorial ambition,” 

Kerry urged Lavrov to ignore his boss’s remarks, according to Lavrov. “Kerry said we have so many serious things to discuss that of course that was unfortunate, let’s not focus on that,” Lavrov told Russian reporters.

State Department officials insist that Kerry is clear-eyed about the challenges of trying to work with Russia, but that he believes there is no other responsible option than to see what can be accomplished.

“Secretary Kerry is not advocating internally or with Russia for a reset in the relationship, and in fact in meetings he has taken a strong and at times skeptical stance,” one senior State Department official told me.

“As the nation's chief diplomat he is simply always exploring ways to make relationships more productive.”

There is also a belief among many both inside the State Department and the White House that sanctions are working. The Russian economy is tanking, albeit due largely to collapsing oil prices and not targeted punishments. One senior administration official argued that absent the sanctions, Putin might have been even more aggressive in Ukraine.

Moreover, this official said, the sanctions need time to work and might yet prove to have greater effect on Putin’s decision-making in the months ahead:

"We’ll see how they feel as their economy continues to deteriorate and the Ukrainian economy refuses to collapse.”

If the Russians are getting ready to cave, they aren’t showing it. Putin remains defiant and Russian military assistance to the Ukrainian rebels continues. The Russian leadership has been rejecting Kerry’s overtures both in public and private. Diplomatic sources said that Lavrov has refused to even discuss Kerry’s conditions for partial easing of sanctions. And Putin has made a hobby of bashing the U.S. in public remarks. 

To many of the administration’s critics, especially Republicans on Capitol Hill, pursuing engagement with Moscow is based on naivety and wishful thinking.

“It’s a strategy worthy in the finest tradition of Neville Chamberlain,” incoming Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain told me. “I think the Russians are doing fine. Meanwhile, what price has Vladimir Putin paid? Very little.”

The legislative branch has also been active on Russia this year, but its efforts run counter to the administration’s policy and sometimes have the indirect effect of putting more roadblocks in front of the Obama-Kerry push to find a way forward.

On Dec. 18, Obama reluctantly signed a bill authorizing new Russia sanctions and military aid to Ukraine that was overwhelmingly passed by Congress. Afterward, the White House awkwardly said that the legislation did not signify any change in policy. 

And this week, the State Department sanctioned four more Russian officials, but not over Ukraine. The officials were added to a list of human rights violators under the Sergei Magnitsky Act of 2012, named after the anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison. In response, the Russian foreign ministry issued a statement saying that the Magnitsky Act sanctions "place in question the prospects for bilateral cooperation in resolving the situation surrounding the Iranian nuclear program, the Syrian crisis, and other acute international issues."

These latest punishments show that it may be impossible to de-link the problems in the bilateral relationship from the opportunities, as the Obama administration wants to do. They also show that there will always be chances for those in Washington and Moscow who want to stoke the tensions to do so, jeopardizing any progress.

Some experts believe that any plan to warm U.S.-Russian relations is unlikely to succeed because it doesn’t have the full support of either president.

“It’s very clear that between the Putin Kremlin and the Obama White House there is a very bad chemistry. Its not a question of simply distrust, it’s a question of intense dislike between the two leaders,” said Dimitri Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest.

Also, some experts feel, placing the diplomacy in the Kerry-Lavrov channel dooms its outcome, because the Russians know that Kerry himself has no power to make major decisions and Lavrov has to be careful not to be seen as cozying up to the U.S.

“The more Kerry creates a perception he has a special relationship with Lavrov, the more he puts Lavrov in a difficult position with officials in his own capital, starting with Putin,” said Simes.

“It’s clear that when Kerry deals with Lavrov and hopes that because they have overlapping interests, that would allow cooperation where useful, that is not a model of relationship that Putin is prepared to accept.”

Obama has made it clear that in his last two years in office he is prepared to make big moves on foreign policy even if they face political or legislative opposition, such as normalizing relations with Cuba or pursuing a nuclear deal with Iran. But when it comes to Russia, he is unwilling to place his own credibility behind any outreach to his nemesis Putin.

The administration’s cautious engagement with Moscow is logical: Why not seek a balance in a complicated and important bilateral relationship? But by choosing a middle ground between conciliation and confrontation -- not being generous enough to entice Russia's cooperation yet not being tough enough to stop Putin’s aggression in Eastern Europe -- Obama’s policy risks failing on both fronts.

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