The most important Russian foreign policy events of the past week centered on Ukraine, including a discussion of the Minsk agreements and the potential for increased Russia-U.S. coordination in bringing the confrontation to an end.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia on Jan. 13, 2016. Photo: Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
A noticeable trend in the past week was the willingness shown by Russia to talk with the West on numerous important foreign policy issues. However, this does not mean that Russia is ready to give ground on anything, as Vladimir Putin explained in an interview with the German newspaper Bild.
“I am neither a friend, nor a bride or groom”
Vladimir Putin gave a major interview to the German newspaper Bild, setting out his vision of the world and Russia's place in it. First and foremost, the Russian President noted that Moscow has no intention of taking up an anti-Western position, and even less of aspiring to the role of global superpower – a very expensive role, according to Mr. Putin.
Instead, he wants the U.S. and EU to find a modus vivendi with Russia, based on mutual respect for each other's interests. In such a way, they can finally overcome the division within Europe. “25 years ago, the Berlin Wall fell, but invisible walls were moved to the east of Europe. This has led to mutual misunderstandings and assignments of guilt. They are the cause of all crises ever since,” said Mr. Putin. In particular, he said, NATO could unilaterally abstain from further expansion to the east.
Once Russia's national interests have been recognized, relations between Russia and the West, said Mr. Putin, should be properly formalized. Policies based on personal relationships between leaders appear highly unreliable, and have been shown to be inadequate if only through the example of ‘friend Boris' and 'friend Bill': such friendships always produce unrealistic expectations.
“I am neither a friend, nor a bride or groom. I am the president of 146 million Russians. I have to represent their interests,” Mr. Putin explained. Therefore, the relationship needs to be formalized, including an agreement on the rules of the game.
“If we want relations between Russia and our friends and neighbors in Europe and around the world to be positive and constructive, we need at the very least always to meet one prerequisite, one condition: we need to respect each other, to respect each other's interests, and to abide by the same rules, rather than changing them every time it is convenient for someone,” the Russian President said.
Boris Gryzlov in Kiev
Last week, Boris Gryzlov, a special representative of the Russian president, visited Kiev. His mission was to inform Petro Poroshenko how Russia might react were Ukraine to further frustrate the Minsk Agreements.
“Gryzlov came specifically to make it clear that Moscow will not put off elections in the Donbas beyond March. And if Kiev continues its sabotage, Moscow will wash its hands of the matter – meaning that the situation will freeze and the region will gradually, in two or three years, drift towards Russia,” believes Ukrainian political expert Mikhail Pogrebinsky.
By all accounts, Moscow's position here has been agreed upon with the EU, which is becoming increasingly disappointed in its Ukrainian experiment by the month. Even Berlin has started to ask Mr. Poroshenko not to rock the boat and to comply with the Minsk provisions.
An indicator of Kiev's compliance with the Minsk Agreements should be its adoption of a law giving special status to certain regions of the Donbas. Voting is said to take place in the coming weeks, and getting the law passed will clearly not be easy: a two-thirds majority is required, but this is far from certain. Even the members of the ruling coalition do not intend to support it, because they associate even this moderate option with handing over the Donbas to Moscow.
The President, meanwhile, cannot allow the bill to be rejected, but is incapable of influencing the parliamentary deputies. Mr. Poroshenko might try to persuade them that the special status law will take effect only after full Ukrainian control over the separatist regions of Eastern Ukraine has been restored. At present, he has promised to restore Ukrainian sovereignty over the Donbas by the end of 2016, and has given assurances that elections will take place in the Donbas only after Kiev has reasserted control over the border between Russia and the unrecognized Donbas republics.
However, the Kremlin is insisting on the road map clearly described in the Minsk Agreements and agreed upon with the European partners: first the law on special rights (the provisions of which are set out in the Agreements, not the bill expected to be put to the vote in the Supreme Rada), then the elections, and only then the transfer of the border to Ukrainian control.
Discussions of the Ukrainian question continued near the Russian city of Kaliningrad, where President Putin's aide Vladislav Surkov met U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland. The meeting took place behind closed doors with no press present, but it is not difficult to guess roughly what it covered – compliance with the Minsk Agreements is a particularly hot topic at the moment.
The United States, however, is neither an observer nor a guarantor of the peace process, because it is not part of the Normandy Four. It is, though, an interested party in the Ukrainian conflict, and does have influence on Ukraine's leaders. In other words, the lengthy talks were necessary primarily to address the monitoring of the situation and Russia's exchange of information with European countries under the Normandy format.
Putin and Obama talk via telephone
On Jan. 13, Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama discussed conflict resolution in Ukraine, the problems in the Middle East, with a focus on the search for solutions to the Syrian crisis, and the situation on the Korean peninsula.
Mr. Putin stressed the need for Kiev to meet its obligations under the Minsk Agreements in full, including the establishment of a direct dialogue with the Donbas, agreeing with the latter on the changes being prepared to the constitution, holding local elections, and implementing special status and amnesty laws.
With regard to Syria, the two presidents expressed mutual support for the efforts of the UN to arrange talks in Geneva at the end of January between representatives of the Syrian government and an opposition delegation, aimed at reaching a political settlement. Mr. Putin again stressed the need to create a broad coalition to fight against ISIS and other extremist organizations, emphasizing the importance of coordinating a joint list of terrorist groups and avoiding double standards when labelling particular groups. This issue is one of the most divisive, and the chances of a consensus being reached are very low.
In fact, the Syrian question has not been exclusively a national issue for a long time, and now, in light of the standoff between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is clear that there is little likelihood of an internal dialogue within Syria producing results. Individual aspects of bilateral contacts aimed at combating terrorism in the Middle East, including in the military, were discussed.
In the near future, the Syrian discussions will be continued by the two countries' foreign ministers in Zurich. This will be an unscheduled meeting, for the sake of which they have changed their plans, an indication that a significant body of issues need to be addressed.
In their telephone conversation, the Russian and American presidents discussed North Korea's recent announcement that it had tested a hydrogen bomb. So far, there has been no firm confirmation of the event, but if it did take place, the test would be a serious violation of UN Security Council resolutions and would require a tough international reaction. Both presidents agreed on this.
At the same time, Mr. Putin reemphasized Russia's support for a diplomatic settlement to the Korean problem. To avoid further exacerbating the situation, he called on all the countries involved to show maximum restraint and not to do anything that could lead to a military escalation in Northeast Asia.