The visit of two high-level U.S. officials to Russia in mid-May suggests that Washington has decided to play a more active role in settling the Ukraine crisis and that relations between the U.S. and Russia, strained since the fighting began, may be improving slightly. Donald Jensen, resident fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Relations, predicts that the deadlock will continue, but the Kremlin will retain the initiative in this matter, no matter how engaged U.S. diplomacy might be.

 

Some Russian officials saw the Kerry (left) and Nuland visits to Russia as evidence that Washington was backing down from its tough line. Foreign Minister Lavrov (right) said that the visits showed U.S. efforts to isolate Russia had collapsed. Photo: AP

 

On May 12, U.S. secretary of state John Kerry travelled to Sochi for a meeting with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, his first trip to Russia since the fighting in Ukraine began. After eight hours of talks conducted in a surprisingly cordial atmosphere—including the participation of President Vladimir Putin—the two men told the press that they were in agreement that the U.S. and Russia ought to put aside their differences, but still “agreed to disagree” on how to implement the February 12 Minsk II ceasefire. The U.S. might offer Moscow some sanctions relief in return for implementing the agreements, according to Russian foreign policy experts, but the U.S. agrees with Kiev rather than Moscow on how to put them into effect. (In addition to visiting Russia for the first time in months, Kerry added to the impression that the U.S. had changed its position when he cautioned the Kiev government not to violate the agreement.) Kerry also discussed Iran and Syria with his Russian hosts.

On May 18, U.S. assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland, widely viewed in Moscow as a hardliner on Ukraine, also indicated Washington had shifted in favor of greater engagement with Russia. She met Russian deputy foreign minister Grigory Karasin in Moscow after two days of talks with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko in Kiev. Nuland restated the U.S. position on conditions for sanctions relief and blamed Russian-backed separatists for daily violations of the ceasefire. Her tone, though tougher than Kerry’s, was milder than it has been in the past. (In March, by contrast, she said Crimea and part of the Donbas live under a “reign of terror” and accused Moscow of inciting the war in Ukraine’s east.) In a statement released after her visit, Nuland called her talks with Karasin “pragmatic” and stressed that both sides need to “build” upon the discussions between Putin, Lavrov, and Kerry in Sochi. She said the U.S. wants to help solidify the shaky ceasefire and endorsed the working groups created by the Minsk II agreements to resolve critical issues.

Back in the states, prominent critics of President Barack Obama’s Ukraine policy quickly took issue with what seems to be a shift in the White House’s position. David Kramer of the McCain Institute said that Kerry’s discussion of cooperation with Russia contradicted President Obama’s boast in his State of the Union address last January that he had taken the lead in the campaign to punish and isolate Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Kramer also pointed out that at the World War II anniversary festivities only a few days before, Putin had blasted the U.S. for “attempts to establish a unipolar world” and continued to crack down on human rights.

It “was hard to see what the U.S. secretary of state was supposed to achieve,” Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute argued, saying that none of the three objectives on Kerry’s official agenda—seeking Moscow’s assistance in ending the Syria war, bringing peace to Ukraine, and keeping open lines of communications with the Kremlin—made sense. Aron was especially critical of Kerry’s performance at the press conference after the talks, where the secretary of state offered a “gooey stream of unctuous clichés, non sequiturs, tautologies, and euphemisms that underscored Putin’s diplomatic victory.” Many observers regretted that Kerry and Nuland both appeared to minimize the topic of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.

In Moscow, some Russian officials and foreign policy commentators saw the Kerry and Nuland visits as evidence that Washington was backing down from its tough line. Having failed to change Russian policy with sanctions and isolation, they concluded, President Obama has accepted that Russia is too important to ignore. Foreign Minister Lavrov told RIA Novosti that the visits showed U.S. efforts to isolate Russia had collapsed.

U.S. officials deny that Washington’s position has fundamentally shifted even as it inserts itself, as the Kerry and Nuland visits show, directly into the Ukraine negotiations for the first time in months.

Underlying the debate about Washington’s intentions has been the tension between four competing U.S. assumptions in its policy toward Ukraine, dating from the beginning of the Ukraine crisis: first, that channels of communication with Moscow must be kept open; second, that Russia at the same time should be punished for its aggression; third, that despite its misbehavior, the Kremlin can be of help in resolving challenges posed by Syria and Iran; and finally, that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is less threatening to U.S. national security than are threats from the Middle East. As a result, while the U.S. has rightly supported Ukraine’s westward choice, it has often delegated leadership of the coalition resisting the Kremlin’s aggression to Europe, in particular Germany. Its policy toward Ukraine, moreover, has sometimes seemed inconsistent and contradictory, weaknesses which the Kremlin has exploited.

U.S. officials deny that Washington’s position has fundamentally shifted even as it inserts itself, as the Kerry and Nuland visits show, directly into the Ukraine negotiations for the first time in months. After Kerry’s return, moreover, the Obama Administration insisted his visit, despite the optics, was not a concession to Putin, but was intended to explore new areas of cooperation. (In a speech at the Brookings Institutions on May 27, Vice President Joe Biden defended the Obama administration’s decision to cooperate with Russia on areas of “clear mutual interest.”) Nuland went out of her way to stress that the new U.S. initiative was being coordinated with the Normandy group of European powers, though there are deep divisions in the European Union over how to deal with Russia. Kerry said at the Sochi news conference that he had made clear Washington’s longstanding “deep concerns,” including Moscow’s “continued arming, training, command, and control of separatist forces.” The sides are far, therefore, from a deal.

Although more direct U.S. involvement may eventually lead to progress on Ukraine, so far there has been little movement on the issue since Kerry and Nuland returned, nor have there been advances in dealing with Syria or Iran. Instead, Putin supporters continue to crow about what they see as Obama’s realization that he must court the Kremlin, and yield to its demands, to get anything done. Moscow has also shown no sign of backing down from a core tenet of its foreign policy: that it must act to reduce U.S. power in the world.

With regard to Ukraine, Russia’s demands include keeping Crimea and forcing upon Kiev a constitution written by Moscow that would federalize the country to the point of being dysfunctional. Should the deadlock continue, as is likely, three options loom for the Kremlin: 1) maintain the status quo and turn the situation in eastern Ukraine into a frozen conflict; 2) resume major military activity if the EU this summer extends existing sanctions on finance, oil, and defense; or 3) restart significant military operation in the next few weeks to exert more pressure on Kiev (the West has warned in recent days that Moscow is again building up its forces on the Russia-Ukraine border). Regardless of which scenario plays out, the Kremlin is likely to retain the initiative, no matter how engaged U.S. diplomacy might be.

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