Kerry’s arrival in Sochi and the upbeat comments following his meetings with President Putin should be seen as a reflection of American weakness and Russian strength.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, is welcomed by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the presidential residence of Bocharov Ruchey in Sochi, Russia, Tuesday May 12, 2015. Photo: AP

Usually it is the substance of talks between leaders that matters, but sometimes it is simply the fact that the talks took place at all and the atmospherics surrounding them. That is certainly the case with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and now with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

These talks did not produce any breakthroughs in East-West disagreements, but took place only days after Putin conspicuously failed to attract the leaders of most major countries – including those of Germany and the U.S. – to Moscow for commemoration of Russia’s Victory Day.

That the talks took place at all, that the leaders came to him rather than the other way around and that Putin demonstrated his willingness to treat his visitors with less than the respect they are normally due – mistranslating Merkel’s remarks about the annexation of Crimea at the Kremlin's web-site – represent a victory for Putin domestically and internationally at least in the short term. If one doubts that, imagine for a moment how the Russian media would have reacted had a Western leader behaved the same way with a visiting Russian one.

For a different take read "Kerry's Sochi visit: Not yet a new reset"

Indeed, it is not too much to say that Kerry helped Putin to make such a claim to victory by praising the Russian president for devoting four hours to a meeting with him and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as evidence that Putin is serious about “ending the bloodshed in Ukraine,” a characterization of the conflict there and Putin’s role in it that will undoubtedly please the Kremlin but that many in Ukraine and the West will view as a reflection of American weakness and Russian strength. 

And from Putin’s point of view, Kerry’s presence and his upbeat comments at the very least will make it more difficult for Washington to insist that the Europeans maintain their sanctions regime against Moscow for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and involvement in Ukraine’s Donbas. Indeed, Kerry’s visit undercuts the tough language about Crimea that Merkel used and that the Kremlin's website unilaterally removed lest it offend the Russian president and his supporters.

Are there any downsides to what happened in Sochi that could turn Putin’s victory in this round into a Pyrrhic one? The answer is that there are at least two, and consequently, today’s victory for the Kremlin leader may turn out to be only a temporary uptick. 

On the one hand, Kerry’s willingness to put up with Putin is certain to spark a furor in Washington where many will see this as an act of appeasement rather than of statesmanship and make statements and take actions to limit what many will see as unnecessary American concessions to the Kremlin.

And on the other hand, these same factors - by infuriating the Ukrainian people and government - will limit the ability of Washington to restrain those in Kiev who want to pursue a more nationalist approach to the conflict with Russia. In the short term, Putin might benefit from such a shift; but in the longer term, he would only be the loser as Ukraine would in that event move even further away from the Russian orbit and be followed on that path by other post-Soviet states, including Belarus.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin once famously observed that he knew when to stop, when not to press his advantage to the point that it became a disadvantage. The question today is whether Putin has the same skill – or whether the current Kremlin leader will go too far in exploiting short-term advantages and thus put himself and his country at risk of suffering longer-term losses.

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