Even though the Dec. 15 visit of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Moscow is a good sign for bilateral relations, experts warn against exaggerating the significance of the meeting.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, second left, in Moscow Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015. Kerry arrived in Moscow to hold talks with Lavrov and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: AP
The Dec. 15 visit of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Moscow seems to confirm the assumption of many Russian and foreign experts that Russia succeeded in persuading the West to take into account its position and role in global affairs.
2015 is believed by many to be the year when the Kremlin promoted its diplomacy vigorously, even though it paid a very high price. At the same time, this year was very effective from the point of view of maintaining personal contacts between Russian and American leaders and top officials.
For example, one of the indicators of the shift in bilateral relations was Kerry’s visit to Sochi in May, during which he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Even though it was not a game-changer, even skeptics greeted the very fact of the visit with cautious praise.
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Afterwards, Putin met with U.S. President Barack Obama on the sidelines of several high-profile international events: the G20 Summit and the Paris Climate Change Conference. Although it is not the reason to be bullish about the future of U.S.-Russia relations, these meetings help to better understand the positions of both and establish a sort of dialogue.
However, some Western experts remain skeptical in any improvement of U.S. –Russia relations until Russia changes its policy in Ukraine. For example, Robert Freedman, a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University, doesn’t see any chance for improvement “unless Russia’s policy changes.”
According to him, it is very hard to talk about cooperation, when the Kremlin “first of all, invaded and annexed Crimea and aided actively separatists in Ukraine and then lied about” the downing of the MH17 Malaysian Boeing over Eastern Ukraine.
“This does not make for close cooperation,” Freedman said in a recent interview with Russia Direct.
So, with Kerry paying a visit to Moscow on Dec. 15, it would be better to express cautious optimism, weighing all the pros and cons. Russia Direct interviewed several experts to figure what motivated the high-profile U.S. official to come to Russia and what are the implications of this visit for U.S.-Russia relations? Should the very fact of the visit be interpreted as a good sign? Are there any reasons not to exaggerate the significance of Kerry’s meetings with Putin and Lavrov?
Andrei Tsygankov, a professor of International Relations and Political Science at San Francisco State University:
Kerry came to coordinate and narrow an existing gap between the two countries’ perspectives. The U.S. wants Syrian President Bashar Assad to go and is confident that a “moderate” opposition would eventually replace him. For now, the U.S. is prepared to wait while the process of power transition takes place, and Kerry made several statements to this effect.
The other key point is who, or which organizations should be counted as terrorists. Here, there is also a development, as both sides have moved to identify some groups, in order to exclude them from the “moderate” opposition list.
There was a substantive discussion in Moscow that will continue in a few days in New York with participation of other important countries. Now that there is a broadly defined roadmap of political transition in the Vienna talks, there will be many more meetings to make it more concrete and specific.
The distant third issue discussed was Ukraine. At this point, the U.S. prioritizes Syria, but Ukraine is important both in terms of Western commitments made to it and as a lever in conversation with Russia.
In exchange for Russia’s continued support in fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and Assad’s eventual departure, the U.S. is signaling its readiness to pressure Kiev to fully implement the Minsk’s agreement, particularly the points about amnesty, autonomy and recognition for the eastern part of Ukraine.
For Russia, U.S. support is also instrumental in pressuring and restraining the ambitions of its allies in the Middle East, especially Turkey and Saudi Arabia, although there are no clear signs that this was discussed during this visit in Moscow.
Mark Galeotti, professor of Global Affairs at New York University and a specialist on Russian security affairs:
In my opinion, Kerry’s visit is important above all as a symbol of the growing awareness on Washington's part that Moscow not only has to be part of any discussions about Syria but also that it has something to offer, political and not just military leverage.
The fact that the Americans are clearly signaling that Assad's departure, while still a desired end result, is not a precondition for any peace process, demonstrates that they are willing to shift their ground to try and meet the Kremlin halfway.
This does not indicate the start of any grand U.S.-Russian rapprochement: There is no "re-reset" on the way. But it does demonstrate that the campaign to isolate Moscow is over, and even if it is grudging, pragmatic, and focused on very specific issues of common interest, we are seeing a newly flexible and collaborative relationship emerging.
Andrei Korobkov, a professor of Political Science at Middle Tennessee State University:
In fact, U.S. President Barack Obama doesn’t agree with the traditional mainstream political line of most elites and media, but cannot be outspoken about his disagreement. Perhaps, he is mindful that it is impossible to resolve the Syrian crisis without Russia’s participation.
Likewise, he understands that America's close allies in the Middle East — Turkey and Saudi Arabia — are playing a double, behind-the-scenes game, in which they support Sunni extremists. Nevertheless, Kerry’s visit to Moscow doesn’t yet mean an improvement in U.S.-Russia relations.
First, in this case, the U.S. has to admit its mistakes in its Middle East policy and soften its position toward Assad. It is hardly likely to happen. Second, Washington has to admit that Russia is a key player in the Middle East and plays rather a positive role in the region. But this could affect the U.S. position in the region. Third, the U.S. and Russia are intransigent in their differences over Ukraine and won’t yield. Fourth, Obama is driven by a domestic agenda: He wants to avoid harsh criticism from Republicans and media for being weak.
Finally, there is one more factor that can hamper U.S.-Russia relations: a great deal of unpredictability and possible provocations in the Middle East from Obama’s opponents, both regional and domestic, who might seek to destabilize U.S.-Russia relations even further.
Mark Kramer, professor and director of the Cold War Studies Program at Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies:
The Kerry visit to Moscow was mostly a signal that the Obama administration has backed down almost completely from the stance it took in 2011 calling for Assad to step down. Considering that Assad at the time was brutally slaughtering tens of thousands of his own people, Obama's stance had a good deal of merit.
But because Obama was unwilling to do anything concrete to enforce his demand, it was mostly empty rhetoric. Putin's regime in Russia, by contrast, has been consistent in demanding that Assad be left in power and has taken many concrete steps to back up that demand, most recently by deploying Russian air and ground forces to Syria.
When interviewed on Oct. 12 about Russian military actions in Syria, Putin made clear that the operations were intended solely to "stabilize the legitimate government in Syria," meaning Assad's regime. The slaughter of more than 200,000 Syrians by Assad's forces, far from weakening Putin's support of Assad, has reinforced Putin's admiration of Assad for his relentlessness in using mass violence to stay in power.
Those are the sorts of allied leaders that Putin likes (by contrast, Putin was outraged when Ukraine's ousted President Viktor Yanukovych proved unwilling to resort to brutal violence in Ukraine to stay in power in February 2014).
Kerry's comments to reporters in Moscow on Tuesday, indicating that the United States will no longer insist on Assad's departure, shows that the sharp divergence in the positions of the U.S. and Russian governments has now ended. The Obama administration has accepted Russia's position, and Putin has gotten his way — a pattern that has become all too common under Obama.
Peter Kuznick, professor of History and director of Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, co-author (with Oliver Stone) of The Untold History of the United States (documentary film and book project):
There is a delicious irony in Kerry’s recent meeting with Putin. Putin, for whom Obama has expressed nothing but contempt for the past year and a half and for whom Obama has done everything he can to make life miserable during that time, may be about to rescue Obama’s presidency not for a first but for a second time in the past two years.
Many remember that Putin’s proposed resolution of the chemical weapons controversy in 2013 provided Obama with a face-saving way to wriggle out of his promise to start bombing Syrian targets. But few recall that if Putin had not intervened when he did, both houses of Congress were about to vote to defeat Obama’s requested authorization to undertake a military escalation that would have involved the U.S. much more deeply and perhaps disastrously in the Syrian Civil War.
Kerry’s visit to Moscow illustrates that Kerry, who was disconcertingly hawkish in his first couple years in office, has the ability to change. Kerry’s visit, which has received far too little attention in the West, marks a potentially dramatic shift in U.S. policy toward Russia and Syria. It reflects the fact that Putin’s bold military intervention in Syria in September has changed both the military and the political calculus in the region. Whether it proves to be a monumental blunder waits to be seen.
Certainly bombing in other conflicts has done little to produce peace on the ground and antiwar forces have rightly condemned such actions when conducted by the U.S. and its allies. But Putin has thrown Obama a lifeline just as mounting pressure to send more arms and “advisors” is shaking Obama’s resolve.
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Following a day of discussions with Lavrov and a three-and-a-half hour meeting with Putin, Kerry announced reassuringly that “Russia and the United States are moving in the same direction” and see the conflict “fundamentally very similarly.” Most promising was his statement that “The United States and its partners are not seeking so-called regime change as it is known in Syria,”—a sharp reversal of previously stated administration policy.
If Kerry is not undermined by anti-Russian elements within the administration, as he was seven months ago after making similarly hopeful statements about Ukraine after meeting with Putin in Sochi, the U.S. and Russia have a promising path toward politically resolving the Syrian civil war. As Kerry noted, good things happen when the U.S. and Russia work together.
The pressure on Obama to take further military action will by no means abate in the foreseeable future. But this week’s potentially game-changing developments vis-à-vis Syria and Russia will strengthen the hand of those who favor diplomacy over belligerence. And they will hopefully open the door to the much needed “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations that Obama promised more than six years ago.
UPDATE: The debates were updated to include comments from Middle Tennessee State University's Andrei Korobkov, Harvard's Mark Kramer and American University's Peter Kuznick.