Foreign Minister Lavrov's press conference shows that Russian government at all levels rejects US attempts to re-write terms of Minsk II Agreement for Ukrainian conflict settlement
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Dr. Gilbert Doctorow has recently provided a masterly discussion of Lavrov’s recent January press conference.
Lavrov’s press conference touched on one of the strangest and most mysterious diplomatic meetings to have happened so far this year.
This was the meeting that took place in Kaliningrad on 15th January 2016 between US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Russian Presidential aide Vladislav Surkov.
Victoria Nuland needs no introduction to regular Russia Insider readers or to followers of the Ukrainian conflict.
A holdover from the Bush-Cheney administration, she is the wife of the neocon ideologue and commentator Robert Kagan, and is known to be a hardline neocon herself. Her position as Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs makes her in effect Washington’s proconsul in Europe.
Nuland played a key role during the Maidan crisis. Famously she let herself be pictured handing out cookies to the anti-government protesters, and was overheard discussing on the telephone with US ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt the make-up of a future Ukrainian government (the so-called “Nuland call”). Her choice as Prime Minister of Ukraine was Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who not coincidentally is Ukraine’s Prime Minister now.
Vladislav Surkov is a much stranger and more interesting person. He is the Dr. Frankenstein of Russian politics.
As Putin’s spin doctor he set himself the extraordinary task of trying to achieve total control of the entire Russian political system, reshaping it to fit his own ideas. He tried to do this by creating puppet parties and social movements to the left and right of the ruling party United Russia. That way he sought to create a political system whose every part was loyal to the Kremlin and was controlled by him.
As more realistic people warned him, what actually happened was that like Dr. Frankenstein he found he could not control his own creations. Instead of taking over the political space to the left and right of United Russia, in order to gain traction with the Russian public they criticised United Russia, and ended up competing with it for votes.
The result was that they ended up taking votes from United Russia, leading to the political setback United Russia suffered in the parliamentary elections of 2011, which triggered the protests that took place that year.
Surkov’s machinations have also had the damaging consequence of sowing cynicism amongst Russians about the state of their politics, with many Russians doubting that their political parties are what they seem.
If Russian politics still have about them a quality of fragility which makes many Russians nervous despite the high degree of national consensus that now exists in Russia, it is in large part Surkov's doing.
One other consequence of Surkov’s manipulations is that despite being by all accounts a charming man, he is personally reviled and distrusted across the whole Russian political scene.
He has become the one person people in Russia of all political persuasions - pro-Western liberals, Communists, conservatives and right wing nationalists - unite in detesting. The only person in Russian politics who appears to trust Surkov is Putin himself.
Like Nuland Surkov has had an important role in the Ukrainian conflict. He has been the liaison person between Putin and the militia leaders in eastern Ukraine.
Not surprisingly when such a controversial figure is given such a role, this has led to all kinds of stories about what Surkov has been up to .
There is for example a widely believed story that back in July 2014 he hatched a plot with the Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov to surrender Donetsk to the Ukrainians. He has constantly been rumoured to be behind various plots to betray Novorossia and the militia ever since.
In my opinion these rumours greatly exaggerate Surkov’s role, but given his background they are inevitable, and make Putin’s choice of Surkov as the person to carry out such a sensitive liaison role a very strange one to say the least.
When two such widely disliked and mistrusted individuals as Nuland and Surkov meet, it is bound to cause alarm. When they meet in private the alarm is bound to be even greater. Ever since news of the meeting became public the alarm bells have been ringing loudly across Russia, the Donbass and Ukraine.
So what did the two discuss when they met?
The official line from the Russians is that the meeting was a “brainstorming” session aimed at finding ways round the obstacles holding up implementation of the Minsk II Agreement.
That scarcely makes sense. How can a solution to a conflict like the one in Ukraine be found through “brainstorming”?
There have also been some very strange stories about Nuland’s behaviour at the meeting.
Supposedly she turned up to the meeting in a state of great agitation, warning a presumably baffled Surkov - with the FSB listening in - that “war is coming”, calling Putin “a f…..g tsar”, and talking luridly of plots in the US to do away with her and with the President.
The reality is that Nuland has been in regular contact with the Russian government about the Ukrainian conflict for some time.
She has been meeting regularly Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karazin - a tough and very experienced career diplomat - for several months to discuss Ukraine and how Minsk II might be implemented.
This latest meeting was however not with Karasin but with Surkov - a Presidential aide not a Russian Foreign Ministry official - and it took place on Russian territory, in a Russian government residence Russian intelligence will have fully wired up, enabling the Russians not just to listen in but also to record everything Nuland would have said during the meeting.
Surkov is banned from entering the EU and the US. If Nuland wanted to meet him she would have had no option but to meet him in Russia. It is likely Kaliningrad was chosen as a sort of token half-way point between Russia and the West: politically it is unequivocally a part of Russia, but its pre-1945 history was as part of Germany and therefore of the West.
The fact however remains that Nuland travelled to Russia to meet Surkov - a person who is persona non grata in the US - and met him on Russian territory in a Russian government residence.
That strongly suggests it was the US - and probably Nuland herself - who initially asked for the meeting, and that the Russians agreed.
It is difficult to avoid the impression that Nuland and her chiefs in the State Department pressed for the meeting because they felt Nuland's meetings with Karazin, and Kerry's meetings with Lavrov, were going nowhere, and that she and they were not succeeding in getting their message - whatever it is - through to the Russian leadership (first and foremost to Putin himself) through the normal diplomatic channels.
In other words the meeting was an attempt by the US to by-pass the diplomats in the Russian Foreign Ministry so as to get through to Putin himself.
There are in fact rumours Nuland actually wanted to meet Putin and that the Russians said no, offering a meeting with Surkov instead.
What the message was that the US wanted to get through to Putin - and which Nuland passed on to Surkov during the meeting - we now know from what Lavrov said at his press conference.
I give here Dr. Doctorow’s translation of Lavrov’s words:
“Now everyone, including our American colleagues is telling us: ‘Just fulfill the Minsk accords on Ukraine and immediately everything will return to normal. We will immediately cancel the sanctions and tempting prospects of cooperation will open up between Russia and the United States over much more pleasant issues, not just in the management of crises; right away a constructive partnership program will take shape.
We are open for cooperation with everyone on an equal, mutually advantageous basis.
We of course do not want anyone to build their policy based on the assumption that Russia and not Ukraine must fulfill the Minsk accords. It is written there who must fulfill them.
I hope that this is well known to the USA. At least, my latest contacts with US Secretary of State John Kerry, the contacts of Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland with Assistant to the Russian President Surkov indicate that the USA can sort out the essence of the Minsk accords. Grosso modo, everyone understands everything…"
(all underlining added)
In other words the US is offering to lift the sanctions if the Russians agree to rewrite Minsk II, and then do certain things that accord with the way in which Minsk II is rewritten.
We know from things Poroshenko has said, and from Putin’s recent answers to Bild-Zeitung, how the US and the Ukrainians want Minsk II rewritten, and what it is they want the Russians to do.
Minsk II says Russia will return control of the border once Ukraine has amended its constitution and granted the two People’s Republics broad autonomy and Special Status.
The US and the Ukrainians want to reverse this order. They want the Russians to return to Kiev control of the border, with Ukraine only having to amend its constitution afterwards.
It goes without saying that if the order of events set out in Minsk II really were reversed in this way the changes to the Ukrainian constitution envisaged by Minsk II would never happen. Having regained control of the border the Ukrainians would simply renege on their agreement to change their constitution, in the meantime dealing with the people of the two People’s Republics in their own way.
Lavrov’s press conference shows the Russians have said no.
Lavrov says he rejected the proposal when it was put to him by Kerry.
What then happened was that Nuland - for whom Ukraine is very much a personal project - tried to get past Lavrov and Karasin so as to put the US proposal directly to Putin. However instead of meeting Putin she met Surkov, who on Putin’s behalf said no.
Two events in January might have made Nuland and the US think Putin might be brought round.
The first was the EU’s renewal of sanctions “until the Minsk Agreement is fully implemented” (for my discussion of the absurdity of this formula see here).
The second was the fall in oil prices and the attendant stories of a supposed crisis in the Russian economy and budget.
In the event what Nuland heard from Surkov was the same that she had previously heard from Karasin, and which is also what Lavrov says he told Kerry.
It is also what Putin told Bild-Zeitung he said to Merkel and Hollande during last autumn's Normandy Four meeting in Paris.
This is that the Russians will not agree to any rewriting of Minsk II, and insist that it be carried out - by the Ukrainians not by them - to the letter.
The fact the Russians describe the meeting between Nuland and Surkov as “brainstorming”, and the stories of Nuland’s strange behaviour at the meeting, suggest that what followed after Surkov said this to Nuland was a row, and one which moreover went on for four hours.
That would explain the reports of swearing, whilst the alleged warnings of coming war and of plots to do away with the President look like garbled versions of warnings - or perhaps of threats - that the Russians had better be more accommodating because the time-window to do a deal is running out, with the US likely to have a more confrontational President (Hillary Clinton?) after the Presidential election.
If this interpretation is correct - and it is the only one fully consistent with all the known facts - then it confirms a number of things.
The first - the obvious one - is that the US - or at least a hardline faction in the US - is unhappy with Minsk II and wants to change it.
The second is that the Russians are not going to agree, and are not going to be bribed by offers to lift the sanctions - or be intimated by threats - into changing their position.
That the Russians will not be pressured over Ukraine is something the Europeans have repeatedly found out to their cost.
They discovered it during their meetings with Putin during the the summit meetings in Milan and Brisbane in 2014, and they discovered it again during Merkel’s and Hollande’s meetings with Putin in February last year in Moscow and Minsk. They also discovered it during the latest Normandy Four summit in Paris.
Now - after the Europeans have failed - it is the US’s turn. First Kerry tried with Lavrov, and Nuland tried with Karasin. Nuland then tried again with Putin and Surkov, and got the same answer.
This has in fact been the consistent pattern throughout the Ukrainian crisis. The Western powers have consistently over-estimated their ability to influence Moscow through sanctions and pressure. When they discover this doesn’t work, they come away angry and baffled.
The Russians have been driving this point home in what are now starting to look increasingly like coordinated statements.
There has been a succession of public statements from top Russian officials over the last few weeks saying that it is Kiev not Moscow that must implement Minsk II, and that Russia refuses to talk about the sanctions with anyone, and will not be pressured by sanctions into doing what it believes is wrong.
Here is what I said about this in my discussion of a recent interview which Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s Chief of Staff and Russia’s No. 2 recently gave, in which he specifically talked about Russia’s refusal to talk to the West about sanctions:
“Ivanov says Russia refuses to discuss the sanctions with the US or with the Europeans and opposes any attempt to bring up the subject of the sanctions in any meeting called to discuss Ukraine.
According to Ivanov, it is for those who imposed the sanctions to admit their error by lifting them.
If true - and there is no reason to doubt what Ivanov says on this subject - then this Russian approach to the question of the sanctions must be a cause of great frustration and bewilderment to Western governments.”
Reports from Kiev say Boris Gryzlov, Russia’s new representative on the Contact Group (whose appointment I discussed here) brought the same message with him during his first visit to Kiev following his appointment.
The fact the US is looking for ways to re-write Minsk II to suit its Ukrainian proteges will surprise no-one.
The important thing is that the Russians are having none of it, and that the US push to rewrite Minsk II is coming up against a solid wall of Russian opposition.
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