Recent efforts at dialogue between top Russian and U.S. diplomats offer real hope that Russia and the U.S. could finally be seeking an end to their confrontation over Ukraine.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, sits next to Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs at the United States Department of State, before a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, Thursday, April 17, 2014, between representatives from the Ukraine, the European Union, Russia and the United States on the Ukrainian crisis. Photo: AP

On July 9, Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s right hand man, is said to be meeting Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs. This could be a further indication that Moscow and Washington are moving towards détente on Ukraine. 

This follows Secretary of State John Kerry's and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's meeting in Geneva on June 30 for their fourth tête-à-tête this year. Both the State Department and the Russian Foreign Secretary have given little information about this – or, indeed, their other three meetings. The Russian Foreign Ministry only revealed that the two “decided to continue our contacts on the Ukrainian crisis on a more practical plane.”

So Kerry’s tweet on May 12 after his visit to Sochi - “Had frank discussions with President Putin & FM Lavrov over key issues including Iran talks, Syria, Ukraine” - could prove truly historic as presaging a new “reset” in U.S.-Russia relations, after an earlier “reset” stalled during Obama’s presidency.

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Indeed, the Geneva meeting appears to confirm U.S. President Barack Obama’s determination to use the last 17 months of his presidency to do what he can to usher in a period of cooperation in world affairs, ending the neo-conservatives’ push for a unipolar world dominated by the U.S. The U.S. “reset” with Cuba is further evidence of this.

If - and it’s a big if – these efforts are followed through, despite Republican opposition, the U.S. and Russia could convert Ukraine from a bone of contention into a benign hyphen joining the “EU west” and the “Russian east” in Europe. 

Reassessing blame for the Ukraine crisis

Part of the Anglo-American media are presenting Kerry’s May visit to Putin’s dacha in Sochi as a defeat for Obama. Indeed, the all-prevailing mantra of the Western media is that the Ukraine crisis is “all Putin’s fault” and little gets published contradicting this, despite what many Western experts have long been saying.

There are, for example, two recent publications that deserve the attention they have not had. The first is the February 10 report of the UK House of Lords Committee on Foreign Affairs chaired by Lord Tugendhat. It declares that, “Foreign Office [and the EU’s] shortcomings led to a catastrophic misreading of the mood in the run-up to the Ukraine crisis.”

The second is a recent monumental work, “Frontline Ukraine,” by University of Kent Professor Richard Sakwa, which evenhandedly distributes blame on the EU, on President Putin, and on the U.S.

Indeed, in the last few months, noted historians John J. Mearsheimer, Margaret Macmillan, and Tarik Cyril Amar have faulted U.S. and EU policies for ignoring Russia’s vital interests. As early as September 8 last year, three former U.S. Ambassadors to Russia/USSR (Jack F. Matlock, Thomas Pickering and James F. Collins) signed a New York Times op-ed headlined “Give Diplomacy with Russia a Chance.”

Jean-Pierre Chevèrnement, a former French Minister of Defense, has just challenged the prevailing self-censorship around Russia with a piece in June’s Le Monde Diplomatique (translated as “No Need For This Cold War”). He stresses the need for the EU to distance itself from the U.S. and assert a policy of its own towards Ukraine and Russia.

The true national interests of Russia and the West coincide

Russia, of course, has a vital interest in Ukraine. The EU has a very important interest. The U.S. has no political interest, provided Ukraine is that “benign hyphen” joining the EU west and the Russian east of Europe.

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It is not only President Obama who is under pressure to end the present standoff with Russia. President Putin, too, is under pressure. The assassination on February 27 of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who had openly deplored the policies that brought civil war to Ukraine, momentarily revealed the depth of Russian middle-class concern about President Putin’s alienation of the West.

Putin is popular in Russia for standing up for Russia’s vital interests, not for a Ukrainian civil war that’s in the interest of no one – particularly the hapless Ukrainians. So if Putin is made an offer that Russia “cannot refuse,” he is likely to take it.

Prospects for agreement on the status of the Ukraine

Last year the stage was at last set for serious negotiations about the shape of a Ukrainian settlement. The European Union (in the form of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande) had begun direct talks about Ukraine with the Kremlin without the U.S. being directly involved, yet with the involvement of all the Ukrainian parties.

These ongoing discussions could now have far greater potential to result in negotiations to end the civil war and determine the future status of Ukraine. But EU foreign affairs decisions, where they involve defense, can be vetoed by any one of the 28 members. So the EU – which generally follows the U.S. when it cannot agree on policy – may now be overtaken by the U.S. in seeking détente with Russia.                                             

In favor of détente is the growing awareness that neither the West nor Russia can afford to make more enemies than they already have. They both need partners on such pressing challenges as climate change, Iran, Syria, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

And good relations between the EU, the U.S. and Russia will largely determine whether a much-needed era of cooperation replaces these times of confrontation. President Obama was right when he famously remarked that, in today’s world, you can’t get much done without Russia.

But both the U.S. and Russia are big ships – and big ships are hard to turn around - particularly when there are those on the bridge who are out to seize the wheel, such as neo-conservatives in the U.S. and security officers in Russia.

So it could be hard for Kerry and Lavrov to keep the ear of their bosses. If the media, Western and Russian, were now to become even-handed in reporting on Ukraine, that would do a great deal to help them.

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