There is little reason to be optimistic about a rapprochement between the U.S. and Russia, even after a high-profile diplomatic meeting in Kaliningrad to discuss Ukraine.


Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, shakes hands with Secretary of State John Kerry after a speech by President Barack Obama during the COP21, United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Le Bourget, outside Paris, on Monday, Nov. 30, 2015. Photo: AP

Relations between the U.S. and Russia gained momentum at the end of 2015 and now that momentum appears to be continuing in the beginning of 2016 as well. On Jan. 13, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his American counterpart Barack Obama had a long phone conversation. Two days later, quick arrangements were made for a meeting between Russian Presidential aide Vladislav Surkov and Victoria Nuland, the Assistant Secretary of State at the U.S. Department of State.

Surkov and Nuland, who supervise their respective governments’ foreign policies regarding Ukraine, held six-hour-long talks and looked pleased with the outcome. The meeting was quite special not only due to its sudden nature, but also its location. It was held in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave landlocked between Poland and Lithuania, both NATO and EU members. Surkov is currently under sanctions, and he cannot visit the EU.

Several hours after the meeting between Nuland and Surkov, the American University in Washington, D.C. played host to Daniel Fried, the State Department's Coordinator for Sanctions Policy, who stated that if the Minsk Agreements were observed, sanctions on Russia might be lifted as early as 2016. The diplomat, who used to resort to rather harsh rhetoric when discussing Russia, eased up this time and shared his observation that, "It looks like Russia is set on finding a diplomatic solution of the Donbas issue."

Of course, it is too early to speak of a new level of understanding between the U.S. and Russia on the Ukrainian issue. The negotiators’ brief comments provide a quick glimpse of each side’s priorities.


Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs and the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt seen here after a session of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine. Photo: RIA Novosti

In her interview to BNS agency, Nuland said that, "The first challenge is to stop the killing of people so that we can start working on other parts of Minsk Agreements." Surkov named constitutional reform in Ukraine as the top "sensitive issue." In the near future, we will see whether Moscow and Washington are going to influence the situation in a way that meets their mutual expectations and what will come out of it.

Admittedly, Russia has a lot more leverage over Luhansk and Donetsk People's Republics separatists than Washington does over Kiev. President Petro Poroshenko will not commit political suicide by pushing for a constitutional reform that benefits the Kremlin regardless of the pressure from the U.S. or EU, whereas an order from Moscow can effectively make the Donbas leaders take a step back, at least for a time.

Also read: "US-Russia-relations in 2015: From confrontation to limited cooperation"

Some demonstrative steps are likely to be taken both by Moscow and Washington, but we can hardly hope that they will lead to a resolution of the Ukrainian conflict and actual implementation of the Minsk agreements in 2016.

The reason for such pessimism is not just Ukraine's inner contradictions which alone are so great that they eliminate the possibility of a quick reconciliation; a much graver cause is the degrading quality of Russian-American relations, quite pronounced in spite of some external signs of improvement.

Clearly, the U.S.-Russia rapprochement at the end of 2015 and beginning of 2016 was determined by the nations' need to resolve a number of domestic political problems.

Obama is preoccupied with ending his presidential term on a note that will create at least a semblance of positive changes in foreign policies to ensure a favorable environment for a Democratic candidate in the wake of the November 2016 election.

Moreover, Obama definitely wants to make history as the President who justified the hopes of the Nobel committee, which gave him a huge advance by awarding the Peace Prize in 2009. Given the tumultuous situation in the Middle East, it is no easy task, but Obama at least seeks to avoid the accusations of making an enormous and tragic mistake by resetting relations with Russia.

The issues that Putin is facing are a lot more prosaic, but also much more challenging. The economic recession in Russia is spreading, and the possibility of the U.S. and EU lifting their sanctions is close to being the last option for overcoming difficulties without having to deal with major domestic cataclysms.

From the get go, after the annexation of Crimea, Russia's involvement in the war in Eastern Ukraine looked like a distraction aimed at creating room for diplomatic negotiations. It appears that the time has come when the Kremlin is ready or even forced to play this card.

Unfortunately, even if the U.S. and Russia unite their efforts to resolve the conflict in Ukraine in the near future, as well as work together on ending the Syrian crisis and fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), not to mention more basic matters, such as economic cooperation, the return to the regular format of Russia-U.S. relations still faces a huge obstacle that is hard to overcome.

That obstacle is the inferiority complex that the Russian leadership trapped itself in by persistently talking about a humiliated and insulted Russia deprived of its rightful place on the world stage by the U.S. and the West.

Surprisingly, nowadays Putin and Obama sitting down at a coffee table at the G20 summit or the Surkov-Nuland meeting organized on the spot in just two days are hailed by Russian state-owned media as a testimony to the great achievements of the Russian President and his prominent role in international affairs. Viewers are being told that before, prior to the annexation of Crimea and the start of Russian military operations in Syria, it was inconceivable.

Read the Q&A with Stanford's Kathryn Stoner: "US-Russia relations should be seen beyond the immediate agenda"

Truth be told, current events can be rather taken to mean that the Russian-American diplomacy is reverting back to a much earlier era. In the modern world that has come so far in multilateral resolution of various problems and global integration, bilateral relations between Russia and the U.S. are being restored with the goal of tackling purely domestic political issues.

The previous format of diplomatic relations that makes many Russians nostalgic for the good old Cold War days immediately brings back an approach from that era: Russia and the U.S. as traditional superpowers discussing the destiny of other nations and states without taking their opinion into consideration, thus converting them into their political clients. What is that if not the restoration of the political environment that ruled the world during the Cold War era?

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.