Russia Direct interviewed Russian and American experts as well as former diplomats to assess the importance of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent high-profile diplomatic mission to Sochi.


Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meets with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Sochi on May 12. Photo: RIA Novosti

UPDATE: The debates were updated to include comments from Will Stevens, spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia.

Both Russian and American experts have greeted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Sochi on May 12 with cautious optimism. After all, it was Kerry’s first visit to Russia in two years - marking the first time since the start of the Ukrainian crisis that Kerry had set foot on Russian soil.

With both sides admitting that the Ukraine crisis has reached a critical point, steps to preserve the momentum of the Minsk II agreement as well as reach some new consensus on what to do next have become even more vitally important.         

In an attempt to assess the results of the meeting, Russia Direct interviewed Russian and American experts as well as former diplomats for their opinions.

Robert Legvold, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science and the Harriman Institute of Columbia University

Provided one is realistic about the current very deteriorated U.S.-Russian relationship, the meeting may be more significant than the media recognizes. The two countries start from a very low point, and there is no chance they will soon change the underlying character of the relationship – that is, a deep mistrust of the other side, profound differences over key issues, such as Ukraine, and a tendency to focus on limitations rather than opportunities. But the Sochi meeting may open the way for both sides to take a different approach to the relationship.

It is significant that both Foreign Minister Lavrov and President Putin gave four hours each to the meeting, but even more so, that the conversations in both cases appeared to be constructive, and free of the invective characterizing other meetings. Perhaps the most significant result was Kerry's remark at the press conference that direct dialogue is crucial, particularly in difficult times. That has not been the Obama Administration's position up to this point.

And it appears that they made progress on specific issues. While differences remain in their estimation of what threatens the Minsk II agreement, they appeared genuinely committed to keeping the lid on. In the case of Syria, while there's no indication that they have a clear notion of what would constitute a political settlement, they appear willing to attempt to cooperate in promoting one. All of this represents progress, but it will only be meaningful, if both sides have the will to take the next steps.

Fyodor Lukyanov, Editor-in-Chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, Chairman of Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy

Yesterday [May 12], the main topics of the discussion were quite usual: Syria, the general situation in the Middle East, the final stage of preparations to the signing of Iran agreement. It’s a typical array of questions usually discussed between representatives of Russia and the U.S. It’s hard to imagine something broader.

While we cannot really discuss the way the negotiations went, as we haven’t participated in them, the personal contacts became more comfortable. But I wouldn’t overestimate this because the general position most likely will not change.

This meeting shows that both sides, Russia and the U.S., became aware of the fact that the situation when two large nuclear superpowers barely have working channels of communication for over a year is quite dangerous. Because in such situation the question is not of an open military conflict (as no one intends to start a war), but there is a necessity to maintain the contact in order to understand the partner’s intentions and logic.

The latest developments probably gave both countries an incentive to re-establish the dialogue that existed even during the period of the Cold War. During that time, the dialogue was not aimed at pressuring someone, but to be aware of what is the general atmosphere. At that time this communication was very constructive.  In my opinion, we are moving towards something similar.

I would not expect the sanctions to be lifted any time soon as Secretary Kerry and his colleagues continue to say that it can only happen if the Minsk agreements are fully realized.  However, the agreements signed in Minsk and their implementation is a very diffused thing that is hard to measure. Most likely, in the near future the sanctions will not be lifted. In the U.S. the mechanism of lifting sanctions is very complex: If sanctions are introduced, it is very hard to lift them later.

Michael McFaul, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and Professor at Stanford University 

I always believe that direct dialogue is useful in diplomacy, so I applaud the idea of Kerry's meeting with Putin. Positive atmospherics, however, are never a substitute for policy. On the major policy issues in U.S.-Russia relations, nothing has changed.

Steven Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and Brookings Senior Fellow at Center on the United States and Europe

According to press reports, the discussions in Sochi between Secretary Kerry and President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov covered a broad agenda, including Ukraine, Iran’s nuclear program, Syria and ISIS, and North Korea.  It does not appear that the visit produced substantive breakthroughs. Indeed, prior to the meeting, American officials had modest expectations in terms of specific outcomes, and the intention of the visit may have been more along the lines of keeping a line of communications open to Putin. That’s worth doing, but absent changes in policies, it will be difficult for the sides to make progress in closing their differences.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) and US Russia Ambassador John Francis Tefft seen before meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi. Photo: RIA Novosti

Andrey Kortunov, General Director of Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC)

The fact that Kerry’s visit to Sochi took place for the first time in two years indicates that it is generally an extraordinary event. Different factors have played a role here. On the one hand, there is the desire to preserve the dialogue, especially, in the times of a growing number of international problems, where Russian and American interests are the same. On the other hand, there is the desire to take part in tackling the Ukrainian crisis.

After all, the U.S. is not a participant of the Normandy format process [a process that involves Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany – Editor’s note]. Nevertheless, they have their opportunities and channels of communication with Kiev. In addition, there is the desire of the U.S. to clearly deliver its position on the Ukrainian case and other international problems. However, nobody expected any breakthroughs in these negotiations.         

Observing the Minsk II agreements was the major topic of the talks in Sochi. On Russia’s part, it was important that the U.S. would not confine their position to monitoring the situation in Eastern Ukraine, but also take responsibilities to exert pressure on the Kiev authorities. And, remarkably, Kerry made a reference to the comment to Ukrainian President Petr Poroshenko about the Donetsk airport and warned against using force in taking it back, which demonstrates the symbolic readiness to exert pressure on Kiev, if necessary, and use its political heft to influence Kiev to fulfill the Minsk agreements. And this is a very important point. It means the possibility of the U.S. participating in the Normandy format negotiations. But again, for Russia, it is much more important to focus on fulfilling the commitments presented in the Minsk Agreements.   

Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics, Head of School at University of Kent, Member of Comparative Politics Research Group

This [Kerry’s visit] is a very positive development. The fact that President Obama has sent his Secretary of State all the way to Sochi suggests the beginning of an understanding that the solution facing the two countries and larger regional and global issues can only be resolved through dialogue. This is the first meeting between Kerry and Putin in two years, and does suggest that the freeze is beginning to thaw.

The key issue discussed was Ukraine, but the Minsk peace process will only work if it is embedded in a larger regional and global settlement, and this is a sign that this may be beginning to emerge. The meeting also discussed the situation in the Middle East, where despite the differences of views, there are many common interests. The key issue is to find a common political language, something that is distinctly missing.

What is the potential for improvement in U.S.-Russian relations? There is a lot of ground to make up, and this is a small sign of a possible path back towards, not so much an improvement, as the beginning of understanding. However, the gulf in understanding between the two countries remains enormous, and the Ukrainian situation will constantly act as an irritant; sometimes it seems deliberately so. With an American election coming up, things will get all the more heated. The two countries operate, as it were, on two different levels of reality, both relatively coherent in their own terms, but ultimately lacking a mode of dialogue between the two.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, is welcomed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi. Photo: AP

Nicolai Petro, Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island, specializing in Russian affairs

It was the meeting itself that was the most significant issue. It was the first high-level meeting between the U.S. and Russian officials in two years. The United States had been the main sponsor of attempts to isolate Russia, but as early as last fall, tried to re-initiate dialogue in secret.

Moscow, in an effort to prove the futility of attempting to isolate Russia, took the position that such contacts must be public. It now appears that Moscow’s position has won out. While it may seem to be a concession that Kerry was allowed to break protocol and meet with Russian President Putin as well as [Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov], this only highlights the official and very public standing accorded this “reset.”

Another interesting aspect of this visit was the equal emphasis that Kerry gave to Ukraine’s need to fulfill its obligations under the Minsk Accords. Traditionally, the United States has made such demands only of Russia, giving Ukraine a free pass. 

It is far too early, however, to speak of a return to “business as usual” between the United States and Russia. As Russia sees it, efforts by the United States to promote turmoil in Ukraine, along with its attempts to organize Russia’s political and economic isolation are hardly forgotten. It is just that the United States belatedly realizes that it needs Russia’s assistance in managing other international crisis, and that its policies of imposing sanctions have led to a great deal of friction with Europe, as well as moved cooperation between China and Russia to a new level. This last item could ultimately threaten the long-term interests of the United States.

To me, however, it is inconceivable that Russia will resume normal relations with the current U.S. administration — too much reckless damage has been done. This does not mean, however, that the stage cannot be set for the resumption of closer ties with some future administrations.

Will Stevens, spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia

It was an important visit at an important time. The task at hand for the Secretary of State was not to develop specific measures to address a particular crisis. Nor was it to achieve a breakthrough. The Secretary of State flew to Sochi to hold an open dialogue on a wide range of issues, which was necessary to make progress in addressing the challenges that we face today.

The negotiations covered all areas of bilateral and international cooperation that are of concern and which require joint efforts. Naturally, a discussion of Iran’s nuclear program took place, and we are on the verge of reaching a final agreement. The Secretary of State spoke about the importance of cooperating in the fight against terrorism and violent extremism. This is a priority for both our countries.

The United States views Russia as an important partner in the fight against terrorism. In particular, we are united in the need to combat Islamic State. We also returned to the need to work jointly on a settlement in Syria. Both the United States and Russia see only a political solution to the crisis in that country.

Despite the fact that the United States and Russia remain at variance on a number of issues over Ukraine, the talks revealed a good deal of common ground. Most importantly, we concur that the Minsk agreements must be implemented in full, and that we must all take responsibility to assist the process. When the Minsk agreements have been fully implemented, the United States and the European Union can begin to lift the sanctions on Russia.

It is important that the Secretary of State’s Russian hosts agreed on the need to ensure compliance with the ceasefire, as well as to withdraw arms and deploy an OSCE monitoring mission. It is not our views on the truce violations that are significant, but the fact that the United States and Russia are both intent on moving toward the full implementation of the Minsk agreements.