U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visits Moscow for the third time since the start of the confrontation between Russia and the U.S. in 2014. Unlike the previous two visits, will this time mark the renewal of effective dialogue?
Secretary of State John Kerry arrives to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, March 24, 2016. Photo: AP
This week U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is visiting Russia for the third time since the start of the Moscow-Washington confrontation over Ukraine. Given the lack of communication between the Kremlin and the White House and the increasing global terror threat after the Mar. 22 Brussels attacks, this is definitely a good sign and a chance for Russia and the U.S. to reiterate a common agenda.
This diplomatic agenda includes not only joint counter-terrorism efforts against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), but also measures to keep afloat the U.S.-Russia Syria ceasefire deal.
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev pins a lot of hopes on Kerry’s visit and sees it as “a step” towards restoring what he calls the “negotiation process” between Russia and the U.S. He argues that the visit of the U.S. Secretary of State to Russia might also result in new agreements, which will contribute to resolving the Syrian crisis and fostering global security in general.
However, once again, experts remain skeptical: They view Kerry’s visit to Moscow with cautious optimism, just as with his two previous visits — to Sochi on May 12, 2015 and to Moscow on Dec. 15, 2015.
For example, Sergey Rogov, the president of the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, argues that Kerry’s visit to Moscow is a last resort to alleviate the crisis in U.S.-Russia relations, which he describes as Cold War II.
According to him, Moscow and Washington have already been in the state of a new Cold War for two years, because they extensively use all the tools of the previous Cold War, including “the wild outburst of propaganda,” a severe decrease in political, economic and military contacts, a renewed arms race and the sanctions wars, or what he calls the “weaponization of finance.” On top of that, the Ukrainian crisis remains the major source of U.S.-Russia confrontation and distrust.
However, Rogov also pins hopes on Kerry’s visit to Moscow, believing that the Kremlin and the White House can agree on many problems, including the fight against ISIS as well as denuclearizing Iran and North Korea.
“Kerry is going to spend three days [in Russia] and this might be our last attempt to come up with a compromise with the Obama administration to alleviate the confrontation, prevent the further exacerbation of the conflict and, maybe, achieve a sort of progress in certain fields,” Rogov said during the Mar. 23-24 Moscow Economic Forum.
“If they [Russia and the U.S.] fail to do it this week,” he added, “Obama won’t be able to change the situation during the presidential campaign in the U.S. and we will have to wait for the coming of the new presidential administration, which is likely to be worse [for Russia] than the one of Obama.”
Russia Direct interviewed foreign experts to assess the current state of U.S.-Russia tensions and find out what Kerry might accomplish in Moscow.
Robert Freedman, visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Political Science:
Kerry wants to defuse any Russian threats to act unilaterally to punish groups, which Moscow claims are breaking the ceasefire. He also wants to see if there is any movement on Russian support for Syrian President Bashar Assad. The key here is when Assad will leave during the transition process in Syria. The U.S. and opposition groups want Assad to leave early in the transition process, but Moscow has not yet been supportive of an early exit for Assad.
In my view, President Obama is so committed not to get heavily involved in Syria that the U.S. will acquiesce in Moscow’s unwillingness to oust Assad. The most Kerry will probably get from the visit is a Russian commitment to work to maintain the limited — and fragile — ceasefire. There will also, most likely, be a discussion of the situation in Ukraine. I doubt, however, whether there will be much movement given Moscow’s continuing commitment to the rebels in Eastern Ukraine.
Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director and fellow with the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) Russia and Eurasia Program:
The U.S. administration has been clear that there is no linkage between Syria and Ukraine in terms of its relationship with Moscow. Russia's partial pullback from Syria and the start of negotiations between the Assad government and the Syrian opposition have elevated the importance of the U.S.-Russia track, where much of the key diplomacy related to the future of Syria is being conducted.
But Washington continues to insist that cooperation on Syria, which is indeed improving, will not lead it to reconsider its approach to the Ukraine crisis or to revisit the issue of sanctions so long as Russia has not fulfilled its obligations under the Minsk II agreement.
Peter Kuznick, professor of History and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, co-author (with Oliver Stone) of “The Untold History of the United States,” a documentary film and book project:
Kerry's third visit to Moscow since May 2015 reflects the confused and contradictory nature of U.S. foreign policy under Obama. The U.S. this past year has been moving one step forward and then one step back, while edging ever so slowly toward the light. I suppose we should be grateful for any progress right now given the sorry state of world affairs.
Secretary of State John Kerry, third from left, meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin, third from right, at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, March 24, 2016. Photo: AP
The policy toward Russia has been just as contradictory: Peaceful overtures and a degree of cooperation on the one hand and implacable hostility on the other. Just two weeks ago, NATO supreme commander U.S. General Philip Breedlove charged that Russia’s bombing policy in Syria was part of a deliberate effort to catalyze migration to Europe that would further undermine EU unity and cohesion.
Now Kerry is there, in the wake of the attack on Brussels, expressing the urgency of cooperation in Syria. The situation is indeed urgent and Russia’s role has been indispensable in the progress thus far achieved. But here’s where things get tricky.
The U.S. has to deliver its Middle Eastern Sunni allies and affiliated opposition groups inside Syria to back off the demand for “regime change,” which Kerry himself did during his December 2015 Moscow visit. The Russians seem willing to consider a longer-term political transition inside Syria, which would be in everyone’s interest, although Assad seems intent on hanging on.
The U.S. also needs to back off on Ukraine and push the Kiev government to implement the Minsk agreement. Crimea is not returning to Ukraine. Increased autonomy for the Donbas region must be formally enacted. Permanent cessation of hostilities must be put into effect by both sides. Anti-corruption measures must be adopted. And a sensible economic policy in which Ukraine maintains friendly relations with both Russia and the West must be enacted. It is time to end the sanctions and reset U.S.-Russian relations on a friendlier basis.
Mark Kramer, professor and director of the Cold War Studies Program at Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies:
Kerry's visit might accomplish a few things at the margins, but it won't make much difference in the larger relationship. What might make a greater difference is the incidence of Islamic State terrorism outside Syria and Iraq. If the recent bombings in Brussels are followed by more attacks in Europe and in Russia, it's conceivable that Russia and NATO countries will actively cooperate in taking on Islamic State in a systematic way. But that's not germane to Kerry's visit.
Aurel Braun, professor of International Relations and Political Science at the University of Toronto, associate of the Davis Center at Harvard University:
Ostensibly, this week Kerry is meeting with Putin in Moscow to discuss Russia's withdrawal of the bulk of its forces from Syria, the political transition process in Syria, and the conflict in Ukraine. Undoubtedly, the horrific bombing in Brussels is also a likely factor as Russia and the U.S. address multiple issues and they may try to build on common interests.
Consequently, it would appear that this may indeed be a propitious time for talks that could be a "game-changer” in terms of relations between the two states, relations that are possibly at the lowest point since the end of the Cold War.
Read the Q&A with Stanford's Kathryn Stoner: "US-Russia relations should be seen beyond the immediate agenda"
However, the above motivating factors also run up against powerful countervailing forces that make these talks unlikely to be a "game-changer." Russia is hardly likely to be prepared to make the kind of concessions in Ukraine that would satisfy American and Western demands and it is certainly difficult to see a reversal on the Kremlin's decision to annex Crimea.
From the American perspective, the Obama administration is highly unlikely to agree to any arrangement that creates the impression of some type of Russian victory in Syria or in Ukraine. In an election year, this would be fodder for the Republicans at a time when the Democrats aim not only for the White House, but also for gains in Congress. In sum, at the moment, at best it is more a case of managing rather than resolving the disputes and conflicts between the two parties.
Read the full version of Braun’s comments here