Even though the Kremlin sees the visits of high-ranking U.S. officials as a sign of diplomatic victory, Russian and American experts remain skeptical. They point to the significant differences that still exist in how Russia and America view the world.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland delivers a speech during a press conference, at the Spasso House - residence of the U.S. Ambassador to Russia in Moscow, Russia, Monday, May 18, 2015. Photo: AP

After high-profile U.S. officials – most notably, Secretary of State John Kerry - paid a series of visits to Russia, some Russian pundits and officials regarded it as a diplomatic victory of the Kremlin and expressed hopes that Moscow and Washington would start a new dialogue. However, skeptics tend to discount the value of these visits for improving relations between the two countries because of perennial differences over Ukraine and other international problems.

Shortly after the May 12 visit of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, experts were both optimistic and pessimistic about its impact on U.S.-Russia bilateral relations, with many welcoming Kerry’s negotiations with Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin as a good sign. Likewise, the visits of other U.S. high-profile officials – U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Special Envoy for Syria Daniel Rubensteinwere greeted and viewed as an attempt to restore the damaged relations with Moscow and resume talks on the thorniest issues.

However, Russia’s Foreign Ministry tends to interpret the visits by Kerry and Nuland as a victory of Russian diplomacy. These negotiations indicate that “attempts to isolate Russia failed,” as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a business lunch at Rossiyskaya Gazeta’s editorial office, pointing out that there are many international challenges – from Ukraine to Syria and Yemen – that are impossible to resolve without the involvement of Russia. Lavrov regards Kerry’s move as a “responsible” step to tackle regional conflicts and the standoff in U.S.-Russia relations.

At the same time, some Russian experts, interviewed by Russia Direct, agree that the visits of high-profile U.S. officials indicate that there are some changes in the U.S. policy toward Russia. They argue that ignoring and isolating Russia doesn’t work as a strategy.

 “The attempts to isolate the Kremlin politically and economically have largely failed,” said Andrei Tsygankov, a professor of International Relations and Political Science at San Francisco State University.

“That also means that there Russia would never become ‘North Korea’ as some commentators are afraid,” added Ivan Kurilla, a former Kennan Institute fellow and professor at Volgograd State University.

Why did John Kerry come to Russia?

Mikhail Troitskiy, an international affairs analyst and an associate professor at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University), argues that the reasons behind the visits by U.S. high-ranking officials to Russia are “likely two-fold.”

On the one hand, despite differences on key international security problems, Washington seeks to “keep talking to Russia” – at least, to “try to understand Russia's intentions,” as some “influential voices in Washington have long been calling on the Obama administration." On the other hand, the U.S. is likely to warn Russia against certain moves in eastern Ukraine, such as providing unconditional support to the separatist entities, Troitskiy explains.   

“Such warnings were likely met with cold indifference in both Sochi and Moscow, so in case of an escalation in east Ukraine, major negative consequences for the U.S.-Russia relationship cannot be avoided,” he told Russia Direct. “A wide gulf still exists between the Russian and U.S. visions of the path towards implementation of the most recent Minsk agreements.”

Tsygankov echoes Troitskiy’s view. “From the U.S. perspective, Russia may not need to be a partner, but it must not become an enemy,” he said. “Both pragmatically and ideologically driven camps in the Obama administration, as exemplified by Kerry and Nuland, recognize this although the Russia debate in the White House is far from over."

Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director and fellow with the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) Russia and Eurasia Program, sees the recent negotiation between Russian and American top officials as a positive sign: a victory of realism of the U.S. foreign policy. According to him, it indicates that there is an interest from both sides of exploring possibilities of diplomacy. However, he warns against making conclusions that both sides reached compromise.

“It is too early,” he said pointing out the U.S. has been “surprisingly disengaged of the diplomatic front” of resolving the Ukrainian standoff. Usually the U.S. has been “taking a back seat, when it comes to diplomacy between the Trans-Atlantic allies on the one side, and Russia – on the other” and now Washington is becoming more interested in tackling the Ukrainian crisis diplomatically together with other stakeholders.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov walk together after laying a wreath at the Zakovkzalny War Memorial in Sochi, Russia, Tuesday, May 12, 2015. Photo: AP

Just talks, not a game-changer

During the May 18 business lunch with journalists, Lavrov admitted that restoring trust between Moscow and Washington would be very difficult, given their different interpretations of the details of the Minsk II Agreements.

Likewise, some Russian and American experts warn against being over-optimistic regarding Kerry’s and Nuland’s visits and argue that it doesn’t necessarily mean that Russia and the U.S. have passed a historic low in their relations.

Mark Galeotti, the professor of global affairs at New York University, argues that the Kerry and Nuland visits are hardly likely to "mean any particular change in the situation." In particular, he points to the differences in tone and goal between Kerry and Nuland, who, according to him, "is much more hawkish on Russia."According to him, an internal tension has not been resolved.

"The fact that both Kerry and Nuland visited suggests this contradiction continues to split U.S. policy over Russia, in detail at least," Galeotti said. 

Meanwhile, Tsygankov, points to “the gap in the two sides’ perceptions” that is still very large.

“What the Kremlin views as a compromise, is not likely to be considered as such by the other side, and vice versa,” he explains. “At best, this is a temporary breathing space with no clear sense of direction.”

Matthew Rojansky, director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, is also very skeptical, because Russia and the United States are “still very far apart on the core dispute over Ukraine.” 

“Unfortunately I would not yet read the visits in broadly positive terms,” he told Russia Direct. “Simply put, each side is putting words in the other’s mouth and badly misreading one another.”

Rojansky highlights that the official positions of the Kremlin and the White House remained very different, with the Russian side focusing on the U.S. coming back to the table to seek “normalization” of ties with Russia and realizing that it cannot get very much done without Russia's partnership.

“From the U.S. side it was almost the opposite – sending top diplomats to remind Russia that its past and ongoing bad behavior is unacceptable and underscore why Russia simply must cooperate with the West on Syria and Iran, which the U.S. describes as being ‘in Russia's interest,’” Rojansky said.

According to him, Washington’s main motivation behind the Kerry and Nuland visits is to demonstrate to domestic and international stakeholders, primarily Germany, that the U.S. is doing its utmost to sustain the “vulnerable” Minsk Agreements before the White House “gives in to what appears to be overwhelming political pressure from Congress to send U.S. weapons to Ukraine.” 

U.S. President Barack Obama is personally against sending weapons and, like Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, he understands the extremely negative implications of such a risky move. However, the U.S. Congress has already authorized sending weapons with a veto-proof supermajority in the case of a major increase in violence in Eastern Ukraine.

This means that “the president will be stuck in a hard position, under huge pressure to act from both parties,” Rojansky warns. “His only way forward is to show that he has done everything he can diplomatically even if in the end he authorizes even a symbolic weapons delivery. If that does happen, the conflict will of course become even more intractable with greater casualties on both sides.”

Kurilla echoes his view to a certain extent.

“No country has publicly announced any compromise,” he said. “The arsenal of diplomacy is wider than concession and compromise. Pressure could also be efficient as well and an ultimatum is also a weapon of diplomats. We do not know what exactly American diplomats brought to Russia. It could be that the Syrian question was discussed and some common ground was found while no such ground was found on Ukraine, or vice versa.”

Summing up, Kurilla sees Kerry’s visit as a sort of “an ice breaker,” which indicates that “we may not have yet overcome the historic low in U.S.-Russian relations, but we passed the period of their ‘freeze’.”

Troitskiy argues that, generally speaking, Kerry’s and Nuland’s diplomatic overtures “don’t give enough grounds to believe that any compromise between Moscow and Washington on the hottest issues on their bilateral agenda is now in sight.”

Likewise, Tsygankov believes that “the shift doesn’t necessarily mean that Russia and U.S. have passed the historic low.”

“We don’t exactly know what went into the decision’s black box – strategic considerations or politics,” he explains. “It may be that the decision reflects Obama’s desire to improve his foreign policy record as a part of his legacy or as a way to preempt a future debate on Russia during the next presidential elections. We may yet remember Obama as the least anti-Russian of all American presidents after the Cold War.”