John Kerry keeps meeting with the irrelevant, sidelined Putin
In a single tweet, the head of Russia’s Foreign Affairs Committee Alexei Pushkov summed up John Kerry's Moscow visit: “There's nothing more powerful in politics than need. Under its influence, forgetting about isolating Russia, the US has begun to move.”
Washington’s policy of “isolating” Russia internationally was a non-starter from the very beginning. On this, Kerry’s third visit to the Russian capital in 10 months, it was abundantly clear that this fact has well and truly sunk in. After four hours of talks with his counterpart Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Kerry emerged with a noticeably softer tone both on the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.
Ceasefire on Syria?
In the case of Syria, perhaps the most striking comment was an admission by Kerry that he had “reached a better understanding of the decisions that President Putin has made of late.” For anyone who watches the relationship between Moscow and Washington closely, this kind of talk will sound like an almost revolutionary breakthrough.
The men agreed on a “target schedule” for establishing a framework for political transition in Syria and draft constitution to be drawn up by August. Both sides reiterated a commitment to use their influence to push the warring parties in the country into “direct talks” with each other. Kerry said the ceasefire that had been hammered out by Moscow and Washington was holding, shakily, despite the “dire predictions” of many. To everyone’s surprise, both powers have seemed uncharacteristically happy with the other’s efforts where the ceasefire is concerned.
Behind the scenes, there will have been more discussion about the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad whose army Russia has supported in taking back ground in the war-torn country. Interestingly, there were no unprompted mentions of Assad in the remarks made by both Kerry and Lavrov after the talks. He was mentioned by Kerry only in response to a question raised by a journalist. One might therefore assume that at least some progress was made on that front behind closed doors. Of course, it could also mean the exact opposite.
John Kerry's frequent visits to Russia are a measure of Moscow's foreign policy success https://t.co/MZlzERuByJ— New York Times World (@nytimesworld)March 25, 2016
Sanctions no more?
On the ever-thorny issue of Ukraine, there was also a more conciliatory tone than usual, with Lavrov saying there were “no disagreements” on the way forward for peace in the eastern regions and that there was “no alternative” to the implementation of the Minsk II agreements. Kerry confirmed that sanctions placed on Russia by the United States over the crisis could be “rolled-back” if all the provisions of Minsk are “fully implemented” without delay.
Whether that will actually happen or not is another story entirely. Despite friendly appearances, it is certainly highly unlikely that sanctions will be lifted before the US presidential election in November — and after that, all bets are off. Even prospective Putin pal Donald Trump came out in favor of sanctions last year. As we’ve seen many times before, words might sometimes change, but policy doesn’t always follow suit.
Silent treatment and isolation doesn’t work
Regardless of what we see in terms of rhetoric from Kerry once he returns to Washington, the most recent meeting in Moscow clarified that any active plan to isolate Russia has been left, reluctantly, behind. Despite the tough talk that will no doubt continue on the domestic front, the White House knows that isolation is an infeasible strategy, as painful as it may be to admit. Russia will not be shut out or shut up.
Washington’s tendency toward denying reality and incentivizing its friends to ‘contain’ any of its perceived irritants in the international arena is a course of action that may prove successful in some cases, but certainly not in others. As AP journalist Matt Lee pointed out at a State Department briefing recently, it’s hardly productive to “live in an illusion or fantasy where you pretend that things that are, are not.”
In an election year where it seems that each candidate for the US presidency has been trying to one-up the other in terms of how much hatred and contempt they can express for Russia’s president, the fact that Kerry and Lavrov made a point to note the importance of cooperation on all fronts yesterday was a welcome change from the escalation in tensions that have marked the past two years.
— Russia Direct (@Russia_Direct)March 24, 2016
The US has “plenty of partners who do not agree with them” but that “does not mean that differences on one particular issue should stop them from talking at all,” Lavrov said. Kerry on the other hand, used the example of Russian-American cooperation on the International Space Station to highlight the benefits of close cooperation in the earthly realm. Listening to American astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko recount their 340 days together in space, hesaid, emphasized “what nations can do when they work together, whether it’s on the International Space Station or in international diplomacy.”
Time for cautious optimism
The fact remains that what Kerry says in Moscow has often been very different to what he says when he returns home to Washington. But it cannot be denied that there has been a tectonic shift in relations in recent months. Only a year ago, the tone from Washington was strikingly different. Recall that the Obama administration made great pains to stress that Russia was a regional power, acting out of weakness and simply needed to be contained, but not paid much attention to.
To identify who has maintained the upper hand in geopolitics, look to who changes his tune first. The other guy is the one in control. After months of Russia standing its ground, it is, as Pushkov tweeted, the US that has begun to move.
Putin welcomed Kerry to Moscow with a joke about what he was carrying with him in his briefcase. He surmised that it may have been money to “haggle with” on key issues. In the slightly — okay very — awkward exchange, Kerry informed Putin that he would let him know away from the cameras, but guessed the Russian president would be “pleasantly” surprised. Asked later by a journalist about the briefcase contents, Kerry would only divulge: “That’s a secret between me and Putin.”
For everyone’s sake, let’s hope it was a good one.