It has been a week since Secretary of State John Kerry emerged from eight hours of meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister to say that the two sides had agreed to make a new effort to cooperate in resolving conflicts in Ukraine and Syria and completing a nuclear accord with Iran. The trip represented yet another bet by the Obama administration that it can cut deals with Putin without betraying U.S. interests or allies or capitulating to the Russian ruler and his imperialist agenda.
So far, the results are not encouraging. The starting point for any practical progress would be the actual implementation of a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine. Though the accord was signed three months ago, Russia’s forces in the region continue to violate it “on a daily basis,” as Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland put it this week. That hasn’t changed: On Wednesday, the Ukrainian military reported that “Russian-backed forces have continued to press their attacks on key points of the front … using heavy artillery and tanks,” according to the website the Interpreter.
Nor has there been any alteration in Moscow’s support for the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad. Despite the abundant evidence that Assad’s forces have resumed using chemical weapons against civilians, in the form of “barrel bombs” filled with chlorine, Russia refuses to acknowledge Damascus’ responsibility. After meeting with Kerry, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, “There should be no attempts to use the issue of alleged use of chemical weapons to exercise any political pressure” on the Assad regime.
Rather than confirm Kerry’s wishful assertion that cooperation is possible, Putin’s followers are crowing about what they describe as an American climb-down. Having failed to change Russian policy with sanctions and isolation, they say, President Obama has accepted that he must court the Kremlin and concede its core demands. Russian officials and media pointedly noted that Kerry did not challenge the Russian annexation of Crimea — the signal achievement of Putin’s aggression — in the talks.
Kerry argues that “there is no substitute for talking directly to key decisionmakers.” And it’s true that there is some value in direct U.S. engagement with the Russian ruler, as opposed to a standoffish approach that leaves German and French leaders as the sole interlocutors. So far, too, the Obama administration has not altered its position on sanctions against Russia, which is that they can be eased only when the Ukraine cease-fire is fully implemented. Though both sides say that is their priority, it’s unlikely to occur any time soon: Russia is using provisions in the agreement to demand a de facto dismantling of Ukraine while refusing to withdraw its troops or allow monitoring of the border.
Obama may believe that re-engagement with Russia will facilitate his top foreign policy priority, the Iranian nuclear deal, while forestalling another escalation by Putin in Ukraine.
But the Russian leader is more likely to be deterred by evidence that new aggression will be met by strong resistance on the ground — including through weapons supplied to Ukrainian forces — and by a firming of economic sanctions. Judging from Moscow’s rhetoric, Kerry’s outreach may have convinced Putin only that the Obama administration will eventually swallow his terms.