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Kerry's Sochi Visit: Is the US Backpedaling on Crimea?

At the end of the day, what we saw with Kerry in Sochi was the inevitable result of failed US policy

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

I'm not buying John Kerry's nice talk in Sochi. Not yet, at least.

It’s been two days since his tête-à-tête with Vladimir Putin at the Black Sea resort, and so far, there’s been no obvious volte-face on the apparent Russia-strategy rethink. But while there’s cause for a healthy dose of skepticism, there’s also cause for (very) cautious optimism.

Kerry didn’t exactly bring a ‘reset’ button, à la Hillary Clinton in 2009, but he did bring with him a new and notably cheerier demeanor.

Whether the talks marked a true turning point in this so-called ‘new Cold War’ it is too soon to tell — but what is obvious, no matter which way you spin it, is that the talks marked a turning point at least in Washington’s own mentality about the Ukraine crisis. Giving up on its principles and various ‘red lines’ is not something that comes easily to the White House, nor to any administration anywhere — but sometimes it has to be done.

Crimea presents one such situation.

<figcaption>Look at that smile. </figcaption>
Look at that smile.

The fact that Kerry didn't mention the ‘annexation’ of the Crimean peninsula during his press conference following talks with Putin has not gone unnoticed and is perhaps the most telling sign that the US sees itself facing an impasse on that particular dispute.

Of course, we don't know what Kerry said behind closed doors — but up until now, he has never missed an opportunity to publicly pull out the Crimea card, so the fact that he didn't can likely only mean one thing: Barack Obama’s administration is beginning to realize that for relations to improve enough to keep Russia on side where its help is needed (IS, Iran), they will at some point be forced to give up on Crimea, if for no other reason than the fact that it is ultimately a dead-end argument.

Essentially, Washington will give up on Crimea because Russia never will.

Obama knows that. Kerry knows that. Victoria Nuland and her cookie-distributing crew know it. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to accept it and move on with minimal embarrassment.

After so much tough talk and hysteria, Washington is highly unlikely to publicly accept or recognize the will of the vast majority of Crimeans. Perhaps they never will. But there are bigger fish to fry in the world and the Crimea question will slowly fizzle out until it seems like no one in the West really cares much about where Crimea does or doesn’t belong. For Russia, the result will ultimately be Crimea and (no) Punishment.

No doubt Kerry’s trip to Sochi rattled some feathers in Kiev. Petro Poroshenko is probably feeling irked by it all — but what he hasn’t seemed to grasp is that he is ultimately irrelevant in comparison to Putin and Russia and that the extreme nationalism and fanaticism on display in his country right now won’t sit well with the freedom-loving West forever.

In fact, after Crimea failed to make an appearance, the second-most significant element of Kerry’s visit to Russia was the fact that he gave a rare public warning to Poroshenko, telling him to “think twice” before reigniting the conflict in the east. This is the first real acknowledgement from Washington that there are two sides in this war, and that the blame can’t be placed entirely at the door of the separatists or the Kremlin.

At the end of the day, what we saw with Kerry in Sochi was the inevitable result of a failed policy.

Washington tried to pull off some great geopolitical chess move in Ukraine — and failed miserably on every count. The sanctions which were meant to cripple the Russian economy and weaken Putin’s domestic support had only a minimal effect on the economy (compared to the designed intent) and had a polar opposite effect on Putin’s popularity; The economy has proved remarkably resilient in the face of what some have called outright ‘economic warfare’ — and Putin is more popular than ever. One can only imagine the surprise and bewilderment inside the White House as this all began to play out.

Furthermore, the inflammatory rhetoric designed to isolate Russia from the rest of the world also proved to be a failure, with Russia turning to its many alternative international partners — from Turkey, to India, to China and Brazil.

The Obama administration vastly overestimated the strength of its hand in Ukraine and underestimated Russia’s ability to withstand whatever was thrown at it — at least this time. As such, US policies have been a disaster from start to finish and at some point, that’s going to have to sink in.

Unfortunately, even if this change in tone does signal a substantial change in tack, it could very well be short-lived. Given the acrimonious relationship between Hillary Clinton and Vladimir Putin, we could see another famous 'reset' if she wins the presidency next year. But this time the mis-translation on the button may well be the more appropriate word to use from the outset.

I don't know if a year and a half of Obama trying to back-pedal on Ukraine to save face and bring a bit more warmth into the big freeze of 2014-15 would be enough to make Hillary and Vlad kiss and make-up. The pair have traded insults at quite an unusually personal level for two people trained in the fine art of diplomacy.  

For its part, Western media has largely been uncharacteristically reticent on exactly what Kerry’s visit means — perhaps, because like the rest of us, they really don’t know — although they’re not usually as shy to speculate.

If Kerry’s cordial tone in Sochi really does mean change is afoot in Washington-Moscow relations, the mainstream American media may eventually find they need a way to wriggle out from under the piles of propaganda they’ve been bombarding people with for the past two years without making it look like a loss for their team.

They may even need to take a moment to reconsider their evangelism for the anti-Russia cause in general. But given the time and energy they’ve put into this narrative, they’re not likely to give it up easily. Whatever happens, rest assured they’ll find a way to spin it as a win for Obama.

Kerry may yet backtrack on the small bit of progress made in Sochi this week — at this point it’s all a guessing game — but if he does, it should be clear by now, that it will be more to America’s detriment than Russia’s.

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