The new visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Moscow is not a game-changer – it’s just a game that reveals President Barack Obama's real strategy to manage rather than resolve conflicts in an election year.
Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin before their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, March 24, 2016. Photo: AP
This week U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is ostensibly meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow to discuss Russia's withdrawal of the bulk of its forces from Syria, the political transition process in that war-torn nation, and the conflict in Ukraine. Undoubtedly, the horrific attacks in Brussels are also a likely factor as Russia and the U.S. address multiple issues and attempt to build on common interests. Let us not forget that Russia has confronted the issue of Islamist terrorism even before that threat appeared on America’s radar.
Consequently, it would appear that this may indeed be a propitious time for talks that could become a "game-changer” in terms of the relations between the two nations – relations that are possibly at the lowest point since the end of the Cold War.
Indeed, Washington has welcomed the announcement by President Putin a little more than a week ago that Russia would be withdrawing the bulk of its forces from Syria, even though the Obama administration was caught by surprise. Further, the ceasefire in Syria appears to be holding while the scourge of Islamist terrorism is very much proving to be a global threat that has to engage both Moscow and Washington.
Additionally, the Obama administration's predilection to disengage and its preference to "lead from behind” even if pushed, means that it is bound to find some Russian actions useful even if it officially deplores others.
For his part, Putin needs to have a lifting or at least an easing of sanctions as Russia's economy is experiencing serious difficulties and the price of energy (on which Russia so heavily depends for its exports) remains largely stagnant.
Recommended: "Kerry's visit to Moscow should be met with cautious optimism"
Unfortunately, the above motivating factors also run up against powerful countervailing forces that make these talks unlikely to be a true game-changer. From the Russian perspective, Putin's domestic political legitimacy depends in no small measure on continuing foreign policy successes where Russia is not only winning but also is seen to be doing so.
Therefore, this would make it highly unlikely that Russia would be prepared to make the kind of concessions in Ukraine that would satisfy American and Western demands and it is certainly difficult to see a reversal on the Kremlin's decision to annex Crimea. Moscow is also unlikely to shift its policy of seeking to dominate the post-Soviet space and this is likely to continue to impair Russian-NATO relations.
From the American perspective, there are several obstacles. First, the Obama administration is highly unlikely to agree to any arrangement that creates the impression of some type of Russian victory in Syria or in Ukraine. In an election year, this would be fodder for the Republicans at a time when the Democrats aim not only for the White House but also for gains in Congress. Second, President Obama views former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the person to carry on his legacy, and granting Russia major concessions would leave her extremely vulnerable.
In the primaries (and should she win the general election), Clinton is aligning herself so closely with President Obama's policies that she would be put at very significant risk if President Obama makes major concessions to Russia.
Third, President Obama has a visceral dislike of Vladimir Putin, treats him with open contempt, resents any international gains by the Russian leader, and has repeatedly tried to deny Putin any foreign policy successes.
Kerry's job, then, seems to be to try to finesse the relationship at a time when there appear to be compelling reasons to cooperate on some key matters. Such finessing, however, is unlikely to yield any fundamental change. Moreover, even if somehow agreements emerge that could appear to be game-changers, they are more likely to be more a matter of "gaming" the fundamental problems. In sum, at the moment, at best it is more a case of managing rather than resolving the disputes and conflicts between the two parties.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.