While the U.S. and Russia appear to be becoming more pragmatic in the way they approach issues such as Syria and Ukraine, there are still a number of unresolved issues at the core of the U.S.-Russian relationship.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meeting with American astronaut Scott Kelly and his Russian counterpart Mikhail Kornienko during Kerry's recent visit to Moscow. Photo: NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly's Facebook page
Last week U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry paid a three-day visit to Moscow. He talked to Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin. The negotiations took about four hours. In fact, it’s the third meeting of Kerry with Russian authorities to be held in such a format.
What has been the pattern in the previous meetings is that Kerry arrives to talk to Putin and Lavrov shortly after the Kremlin's sudden foreign policy moves: the first meeting came after signing the Minsk agreements, the second one took place after Russia sent military forces to Syria, now the U.S. Secretary of State visited Moscow after the withdrawal of the Russian troops.
The negotiations typically last the full day, with Kerry also working hard during the visit to create the image that he is a “friend of the Russian people.” For that purpose, walks around Moscow have been organized, as well as meetings with representatives of Russian civil society.
Moreover, all public speeches of the American guest include various inspirational stories. This time it’s a story about the lengthy collaboration between American astronaut Scott Kelly and his Russian counterpart Mikhail Kornienko at the International Space Station.
Russian leaders also behave in the same habitual manner: Putin jokes, Lavrov tells journalists about the widest circle of problems discussed during the negotiations, and then gives them a short lecture on the well-worn topic of U.S. foreign policy failures in the Middle East.
However, now, after the third such meeting, one can draw conclusions not only about the similarity of their outer appearance, but also about their actual substance.
The first, and the most important conclusion, is that the mechanism of U.S.-Russian talks is beginning to work and is bearing fruit. The events around Syria after Kerry’s meeting with Lavrov and Putin have developed according to the statements made: The process of negotiations between the opposition and Syrian president Bashar Assad has been launched, the UN Security Council’s resolution has been accepted, and a ceasefire announced. It’s not ruled out that the removal of a part of Russian troops from Syria was also agreed upon then, in December.
The next important result of Kerry’s visit is the demonstration that the U.S. is really interested in collaboration with Russia. In short, differences on some problems do not exclude close partnership in other fields. Of course, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama had to outsource the Syrian problem when the U.S. refused direct military intervention. And even such an unlikely ally as Russia after the Ukrainian crisis was able to help the U.S. achieve its desired results in Syria.
The most important task of the Kremlin in this situation is to present real U.S.-Russian collaboration on Syria in the right light. Russia wants to be seen not as Washington’s “work horse” that does all the dirty work of exterminating international terrorism in Syria, but as an independent great state that’s only governed by its own interests.
At the final press conference Lavrov named the multiple topics discussed throughout the talks. Syria and Ukraine were only two bullet points in that long list. The Russian foreign minister mentioned Yemen, NATO’s expansion, and dissatisfaction with the methods the U.S. used to put pressure on North Korea. Kerry didn’t deny that all those issues were discussed, but only commented on Syria and Ukraine.
The real negotiations in Moscow dealt with Syria and Ukraine agendas , and not the global challenges where the Russian position isn’t so important or interesting to the U.S. Today Russia can influence Damascus and the separatists in Eastern Ukraine, and it can strike the positions of terrorists in Syria. Washington has a dialogue with Putin on these issues. All the rest is important to Russia, not the U.S., and not in a practical way but to maintain the image of a global political player.
Kerry said at the press conference that the U.S. side understands the position of the Russian authorities much better after the talks, and that it’s one of the important results of these meetings. It seems a rather banal statement, but in the current context of U.S.-Russian relations it has deep meaning.
It’s known that randomness and unpredictability have become the distinctive trademarks of Putin’s foreign policy. Secret operations, confusing the opponents and his own people – the Russian president knows all about it, and uses such methods more and more actively to achieve political goals.
It’s not surprising that the most valuable diplomatic currency in such situation is the knowledge of real plans and intentions that Putin shares only with select people from his circle and international partners. Judging by the fact that it’s Kerry’s third visit in the past year to the Russian president and that he listens attentively, the U.S. side believes Putin to be rather honest in his conversations with the secretary of state.
Statements from Russian diplomats about better understanding of American position after the negotiations are much more rare. This also reflects objective reality: to understand U.S. foreign policy one doesn’t have to press for an audience with President Obama and converse with him behind closed doors for four hours.
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American foreign policy is much more predictable and transparent. An indirect proof of this fact is the lack of interest from Russian authorities in developing so-called “American research” and supporting American Studies in Russia (Amerikanistika). Why spend money on political scientists if one has only to read The New York Times or The Washington Post to find answers to any new questions?
The Kremlin isn’t concerned with the fact that millions of Russians are left without any adequate knowledge about the U.S. as a result of such approach. It only makes it easier to form the image of an enemy with the means of state propaganda.
If the Syrian collaboration between the U.S. and Russia would continue after the Moscow meetings, and the conflicting sides would accelerate the implementation of the Minsk agreements in Ukraine, it would be a good sign.
For the first time in a few years Moscow and Washington have expressed the real interest toward each other: the White House aims at softening any tensions during the Obama administration’s final year, while the Kremlin seeks to use pragmatic relations with the U.S. to restore Russia’s status of a great state in international affairs.
However, what worries the most is this rapprochement seems to be only temporary, and U.S.-Russia confrontation is much more fundamental than the existing reasons for collaboration.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.