After Kerry’s visit to Moscow, the U.S. appears more amenable to diplomatic overtures from Russia, but it’s still too early to talk about any kind of Western capitulation to Russia.
Diplomacy in action: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Tefft, out for a walk along the Old Arbat in Moscow, interacting with everyday Russians. Photo: U.S. Embassy in Moscow
On Dec. 15, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Compared with Kerry's previous visit to Russia in May 2015, this time the general atmosphere was a lot more positive. The two sides agreed to continue their cooperation on the resolution of the Syrian conflict at the New York conference at the end of this week.
Welcoming Kerry in Moscow, Putin was in a good mood. His plan worked - after the beginning of Russian military airstrikes in Syria, not only Europe, but also the U.S. had a change of heart and started seeing Russian as an important and influential partner.
In just two months, U.S. President Barack Obama met with Putin three times, French President François Hollande visited Moscow, and many other world leaders expressed their interest in holding consultations with the Russian President, who only a year ago came close to being banished from the G20 Summit in Australia due to the general displeasure over the annexation of the Crimea and Russian political support of Eastern Ukrainian separatists.
In their coverage of the negotiations with the American delegation, Russian media focused on one statement that Kerry made at the final press conference, "The U.S. has no plan to isolate Russia." However trivial, this statement marked a change in the direction of American foreign policy.
Also read Russia Direct's debates: "Kerry's visit to Moscow should be met with cautious optimism"
Recently, the White House and the Department of State used very different rhetoric, for example, saying that Russia should be expecting further isolation if Moscow persists in its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or refuses to join the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).
Presently, even though Russia has not changed its stance (at least outwardly), Assad is still President, and no less than two coalitions, the Russian and the Muslim one announced at the recent meeting in Riyadh, are now in existence in addition to the American coalition, the U.S. Secretary of State did not express any discontent.
So what happened? Could it be that Putin really outplayed everyone, and the West has to capitulate before the strategic talent of the Russian President? Are we going to see the consolidation of all forces that are fighting ISIS, the end of the civil war in Syria, the implementation of the Minsk Protocol, and the lifting of sanctions?
Unfortunately, it is not likely to happen, and the reality gives little reason to be optimistic. New nuances in Washington's treatment of Russia look less like a change of heart and more like a strategic move aimed at promoting Obama's current political goals.
Prior to the negotiations with Kerry in Moscow, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement in which it tied the success of Kerry’s visit to the need "to maintain the principles of equality, mutual respect, and non-interference in the internal affairs of other states."
One might see it for another official phrase of little importance, but it seems that Washington took it seriously. Judging by the program of Kerry's Moscow visit, the American leadership finally realized that dealing with Russia may be not only about the content of negotiations, but also about outward appearances.
Several centuries ago at the Chinese emperor’s court, foreigners had to go through a humiliating kowtow ceremony that included multiple low bows meant to demonstrate submission. Only if the imperial protocol was observed could foreign ambassadors hope for successful negotiations. When in Moscow, Kerry decided to follow in this stead and take into account the Russian understanding of proper conduct for American diplomats.
Between meetings, the U.S. Secretary of State, Ambassador John Tefft, and members of the delegation strolled down the main streets of the Russian capital, bought several Russian nesting dolls at a souvenir shop, and talked to passersby. Overall, Kerry acted like he was visiting one of America's best allies. That is exactly how former U.S.-President Ronald Reagan carried himself during his Moscow visit in 1988. He smiled, spoke with Muscovites, and then claimed that there was no "Evil Empire" anymore.
In the end, Kerry not only enjoyed the opportunity to get Russian presents for his grandchildren, but, more importantly, at the negotiations he played the part of a counselor who invokes the pleasant memories of an era when no one even dreamed of challenging the notion of the U.S.S.R. as one of two greatest superpowers.
It is worth pointing out that during his previous visit to Russia in May 2015, Kerry had a very different part to play. Then he was more of a prosecutor that exposed vice, put forward strict requirements, and did not expect anyone to like him. However, the main issue on the agenda back then was also quite different - Ukraine. This time the discussion focused on the civil war in Syria and fighting ISIS, and the American authorities decided to switch their tone when negotiating with Moscow.
What is the main reason behind this shift? Would it be correct to assume that the Russian air strikes in Syria became the "new Stalingrad" that gave Russia a strategic edge in its standoff with the West? At the end of 2014, Putin drew such parallels to the World War II historic events. So could he have been anticipating such changes in 2015?
Even though the Russian leadership is anxious to interpret current events as "the capitulation of the West," the softening in American diplomacy has purely pragmatic reasons. For Washington's plan for the resolution in Syria to succeed, it is necessary to include representatives of President al-Assad who would negotiate ceasefire terms and the start of political reforms.
Currently, no one but Russia can make the Syrian President communicate with his mortal enemies. The ability to influence al-Assad, earned primarily by Russian Air Force strikes at his opponents, is Russia's main international asset, and it is the desire to utilize it that brought Kerry to Moscow.
There is also another aspect that is making the U.S. step away from its strategy of ignoring Russia and humiliating the Kremlin. Moscow's international moves in 2015 concerned Washington much more than last year's developments that included the incorporation of the Crimea and the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
The events of 2014, while unarguably tragic, still qualified as a regional conflict, one of many. Nowadays, after the start of the Russian military operation in Syria and especially after the quick escalation following the downing of the Russian bomber, Washington believes that aggrieved Moscow is threatening the entire world order.
It looks like the Obama administration concluded that it was pointless to chastise Russia. Instead, it needed to be pacified. Thus, we observed smiling Kerry in the streets of Moscow. Of course, this can be considered the success of Putin and Russian diplomacy. But is still falls short of being a "new Stalingrad."
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.