U.S. State Secretary John Kerry’s visit to Moscow and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual press conference were the two events of the past week with the greatest impact on Russian foreign policy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at his annual end of year news conference as reporters hold up posters to attract his attention on Dec. 17, 2015. Photo: AP
On Dec. 15, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met in Moscow, after which they both talked with President Vladimir Putin. Then, on Dec. 17, Vladimir Putin held his traditional year-end press conference, during which he answered questions, many of which dealt with foreign policy issues.
John Kerry in Moscow
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Moscow on Dec. 15. No communiqué detailing breakthrough decisions was released after his talks with Lavrov, but this does not mean that the negotiations were a failure.
First, John Kerry made it clear that the world would learn a little later about any specific agreements reached – and he was telling the truth.
On Dec. 17, the UN Security Council adopted a joint Russian-American sponsored UN resolution requiring all states to take measures to stop the sources of financing of terrorists, and in particular – to freeze assets, prohibit entry and transit, and prevent the direct or indirect supply of arms to and by persons and organizations that would be placed on the sanctions list of the UN Security Council.
Also read Russia Direct's debates: "Kerry's visit to Moscow should be met with cautious optimism"
Secondly, the U.S. Secretary of State came not only to find solutions, but also to seek compromises. “The world needs that two important nations, the two leading powers, be able to find common ground and agree on the given issues,” said the head of the U.S. State Department. Of course, he was referring to Syria and Ukraine – the two main topics of his talks with Putin and Lavrov, and his optimism was appropriate.
Theoretically, Moscow and Washington can find common ground on both issues. In Syria, both sides are interested in defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), as well as in preventing the Syrian civil war from turning into a religious or even region-wide conflict.
On the Ukrainian issue, the Americans are not interested in a new spiral of civil war in the Donbas. Although the continued low-intensity conflict will hinder the development of Russian-European dialogue, it will not lead to a Russo-Ukrainian war that might drag in Washington. For these framework compromises to turn into specific arrangements, there are needed not one, not two, but many regular meetings at the highest level.
Lukashenko – a difficult partner
The President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko’s visit to Moscow was scheduled to take place in late November, but was canceled due to the busy schedules of both presidents. This was the official version. However, there is reason to believe that the initiator of this postponement was the Belarusian President, and this became known just before the cancelled visit.
Soon after, it became known that the Eurasia Stabilization and Development Foundation had decided to delay making a decision on a loan to Belarus, first demanding from Minsk certain reforms and the privatization of some state assets. Lukashenko had lowered the level of support he was requesting from $3 billion to $2 billion, and at the same time, started talking about possible support coming from the IMF.
We must assume that any loan to Belarus, in the current environment, would be accompanied by the same set of conditions, and therefore obtaining external financing will be problematic. Minsk has not yet fulfilled all the loan commitments it had made, resulting in the withholding of the latest $440 million tranche.
As a result, the Belarusian president decided to make a demonstrative gesture, and his first visit, after his reelection he made to Vietnam, and not to Russia, as was the case after all his previous reelections.
The tension in relations between Russia and Belarus should not be exaggerated. However, it is no secret that, in addition to the economic problems, military-political issues have recently entered into the relations between the two countries.
As far back as 2013, representatives of the two countries were considering the creation of a Russian Air Force Base near the Belarusian city of Bobruisk, and the issue seemed to have been decided. Therefore, a recent statement of Alexander Lukashenko – that this issue had not yet been discussed with him – was unexpected.
Moreover, the Belarusian President emphasized in his rhetoric the fact that Belarus does not need a military base, but at the same time, giving to understand that he was ready to discuss the issue. In his usual manner, he said: “We will discuss with Putin the problem, if Russia sees something that we do not see, Russia will say so.”
The latest talks on Dec. 15 brought no certainty on any of the issues, and Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov was even forced to insist that a military base was not discussed at the talks.
On Dec. 21, during the Summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Moscow, the heads of Russia and Belarus will meet once more, and possibly a compromise will be found on the issue of a military base in Belarus under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
As for the loan, its provision depends not only on Russia, but also on other members of the Eurasia Stabilization and Development Foundation, as well as the measures that Belarus is ready to take itself, in order to improve its own economy.
Putin’s year-end press conference
The traditional press conference of the Russian President Vladimir Putin, to a large extent, was focused on international political issues this time around. Despite the fact that the previous year was a difficult one, and full of challenges, the Russian president demonstrated his readiness to talk with all partners and these signals were almost unequivocal.
Even on the conflict with Turkey, he made remarks that leave hope for the possibility of its de-escalation. “I do not want to be responsible for others, the leaders of other countries. If they believe, that it is possible and necessary to do something – then let them do it. So far we have not seen anything.” The Russian President did not announce how he expected the Turkish leadership to act, but such conditions were made clear previously.
To begin with, there should be a formal apology. Speaking about relations with Turkey, Putin deliberately made clear the content of recent talks in Antalya, and that Russia was particularly willing to cooperate with Turkey on the Kurdish issue.
Now that Russian air defense systems are in Syria, the persistent violations of the Syrian border by Turkish military are now a thing of the past. However, as we have seen in Iraq, this is no longer a simple issue of violation of boundaries, but practically an occupation of the country.
The Turkish leaders have now made everyone’s positions difficult, and are in fact a burden on NATO and Washington. However, we cannot exclude the fact that the Turks, in shooting down the Russian jet, were carrying out a provocation for those who simply could not afford to allow themselves such actions.
The Russian president said he did not see any prospects for establishing contacts with the current Turkish leadership, although he left open the possibility of humanitarian contacts. These kinds of words will be hard to take back, and that means that this is a long-term position of Russia.
On the Syrian issue, Russia sees primarily a political solution, and at that, an independent one, not one imposed from outside on the country’s inhabitants.
“We will never agree with the fact that someone from the outside – from wherever it may be, would impose on anyone, anywhere, the persons that will lead them.” This issue was discussed during John Kerry’s visit and, apparently, an understanding was found.
This is unlikely to be spoken aloud, not to cause yet more concern to U.S. allies in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, which is dead set against Assad, and the Alawite minority in Syria. Separately, the President was asked about the creation in the future of Russian military base in Syria. Putin did not answer it in a definitive manner, but mostly voiced arguments “against” such a move.
On the issue of Ukraine, Putin was forced to admit the necessity of depriving that country of preferences in its trade with Russia. It is well known that in addition to its own economic interests, Russia also has obligations to Eurasian Economic Union countries, and therefore, the former trade regime cannot be preserved.
By the way, the Russian side had earlier sent many proposals for reviewing the options that could address the inevitable problems, but they were ignored in Kiev and Brussels.
Putin had to draw attention to non-fulfilment, by the Ukrainian side, of the Minsk Agreements, and the attempts by Kiev to only give the appearance of implementing its international commitments.
On the issue of gas transit through Ukraine, the Russian President agreed this was moot point today, and the decision depends on whether Kiev is ready to provide a market-oriented operation of the gas transportation system, based on legal and administrative regulations, according to European standards.