In the wake of the cancelled Moscow summit, is there anything we can expect from the high-level “2+2” talks taking place in Washington?
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry cope with the Cold War legacy. Photo: RIA Novosti / Eduard Pesov
When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel host their Russian counterparts, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in Washington, it will come at a difficult time. Four years after Lavrov and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressed a symbolic “reset” button leading to a new era in bilateral relations, progress in this area seems to be grinding to a halt again.
Moscow and Washington have been drifting apart over the last year as Congress pushed ahead with the Magnitsky Act and Russia retaliated with a ban on adoptions of Russian children into American homes. Moscow and its Western partners have been struggling to reach compromise and come up with an effective solution to stop bloodshed in Syria. The West has chastised Russia for a string of laws that critics say infringe on minorities’ rights.
The most recent episode in the series of moves eroding the reset has been President Obama’s decision to cancel a planned one-on-one with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Moscow next month shortly after NSA leaker Edward Snowden received political asylum for 12 months in Russia.
The White House cited “lack of progress on issues such as missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security issues, and human rights and civil society in the last twelve months” as the reasons for calling off the summit with Putin.
In a situation like that, little can be expected from Friday’s talks between Kerry, Hagel, Lavrov and Shoigu. Still, the two parties have quite a few issues to take up.
“The fact that the meeting will take place against all odds shows that neither side wants to break off contacts, but no more than that,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor-in-chief of the “Russia in Global Politics” magazine.
Secretary Kerry hopes to discuss a wide range of issues, from cooperation on Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea, where Moscow and Washington have worked closely and reached agreements, to missile defense, arms control and human rights, where their stances differ, the spokesperson for the Department of State, Jen Psaki, said at a press briefing on Aug. 6.
“They’ll also, of course, continue their dialogue on Syria and discuss efforts to build momentum towards Geneva,” she added.
“The format of the talks suggests that the focus will be put on international security,” said Moscow-based political analyst Igor Zevelev. He does not expect human rights to be on top of the agenda. “This problem could be brought up at the top level, between Obama and Putin, but their meeting won’t take place, as we know,” he said.
The Snowden factor
“There’s no point discussing Snowden, everything’s already happened and most probably won’t be changed,” said Fyodor Lukyanov.
Still, the talks are more likely than not to be haunted by the shadow of Edward Snowden.
“We have raised Mr. Snowden with Russian officials many times in recent weeks and expect to do so again. We continue to press,” Jen Psaki of the State Department said. “We would like to see Mr. Snowden returned to the United States. I don’t know technically what that requires, but we know they have the capability to do that.”
Igor Zevelev pointed out that Snowden has become a major irritant in U.S.-Russian relations and played a key role in Obama’s decision to call off his visit to Moscow. “However, it wouldn’t matter this much unless this story were happening amid general disagreement between Moscow and Washington on other issues,” Zevelev said.
Seeking compromise on Syria
The outcome of bilateral talks on Syria doesn’t depend on the Snowden dispute much, said political analyst Alexander Kolbin. In his view, the two parties are closer to reaching compromise now than two years ago, when violence flared up in Syria.
“Assad looks more confident now, while the West’s consolidated stand on Syria looks less stable from the political and ethical perspectives,” Kolbin said. “The Russian approach, which suggests diplomatic settling and dialogue, looks more coherent and more beneficial for potential mediators in the conflict.”
Fyodor Lukyanov believes that the West has let the conflict in Syria get out of hand. “Both sides seem to understand that their efforts are pointless, and little can be done to rectify the situation right now, maybe someday in the future,” he said.
The future of Afghanistan
Afghanistan is one of the few areas where cooperation between Moscow and Washington has been developing steadily.
Igor Zevelev expects the U.S. and Russian defense and foreign affairs ministers to move forward on technical issues having to do with the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country and using Russian territory as a transit route.
“They will probably touch upon efforts to bring the situation in Afghanistan back to normal in general,” Zevelev said. “Moscow’s and Washington’s stands on these issues are quite close, and both sides are interested in continuing dialogue.”
Alexander Kolbin warns that the Snowden row can affect cooperation on Afghanistan more than in any other area. “The routes and mechanisms of the withdrawal of the troops remain a subject of heated disputes between America and the Central Asian nations bordering Afghanistan, and Russia has its own geopolitical interests in this region,” Kolbin said.
Russia is offering an airport in the city of Ulyanovsk on the Volga as an alternative to transport hubs in Central Asia. “The Snowden situation puts into question the role of Ulyanovsk as a transit center not only from the economic but also from the political point of view now,” Kolbin said.
Along with leaving Afghanistan, the U.S. is closing its military base in Kyrgyzstan, which raises the chances for another Central Asian country, Uzbekistan, to accommodate a transit center in the region’s largest airport, Navoi.
The new president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, assumed office on Aug. 3, and while he is generally perceived as a more moderate and pro-Western politician than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it is yet premature to say how he will tackle the sensitive issue of Iran’s uranium enrichment program.
Having lost its close ally, Ahmadinejad, Russia is now playing a lesser role in the region. “There’re hopes connected with the new president, and I think Washington needs Russia less than before because it’s trying to restore dialogue with Tehran itself, without a third party’s help,” said Fyodor Lukyanov.
Igor Zevelev pointed out that, in his view, U.S. and Russian positions on Iran’s nuclear program are closer than they may seem on the surface.
START treaty extension
The reduction of nuclear arsenals has been on the U.S.-Russian agenda for decades. The two parties made great progress on it in 2010, when then-President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev signed the New START treaty with Barack Obama in Prague. A ten-year agreement came into force in 2011 and is unlikely to be revised or extended in the near future.
“So far there’re no prerequisites for further reduction in strategic arms – Putin, Lavrov and Shoigu reiterated this more than once,” Alexander Kolbov said. “Besides, without compromise on missile defense, dialogue on START will be impossible after the treaty expires.”
Igor Zevelev expects no progress to be made on arms control at the talks on Friday. “So far Moscow and Washington have different perspectives on how to move forward,” he said.