US State Secretary John Kerry travelled to Moscow on December 15 to bridge gaps over ways to end the Syrian conflict and discuss other hot issues of mutual concern. With the holidays and New Year approaching, Mr. Kerry's visit could be the last chance to achieve progress between Russia and the US before 2016. Prior to the negotiations a calico cat appeared in the yard of the Foreign Ministry’s mansion – a good sign and a symbol of good luck. To some extent, it has proven to be true. The United States and Russia are demonstrating readiness for cooperation.
Following the talks in Moscow between US Secretary of State John Kerry, his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin, Russia and the US said world powers will meet in New York on December 18 to pass a UN resolution reaffirming the principles of the peace process agreed in Vienna last month and endorsing the Syria peace process. This is a tangible result. The New York talks had previously been up in the air, as it was unclear whether the parties would manage to overcome differences on the role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the list of participating opposition groups.
The both sides would keep working on contentious issues, like the make-up of the opposition delegation. They reached some agreement, such as on terrorist groups. «Together, we are looking for ways out of the most urgent crises», Russian President Putin said ahead of the meeting. «Even when there have been differences between us, we have been able to work effectively on specific issues», Mr. Kerry said before the start of his talks with Minister Lavrov.
The BBC's Barbara Plett-Usher, who is travelling with Mr. Kerry, said he knows the Russians are indispensable because it is they who could bring Mr. Assad to the negotiating table.
On Syria, Lavrov said agreements were reached to draw up a list of terrorist organizations and to assist the United Nations in setting up a representative delegation from the Syrian opposition. The Minister added that the two sides «discussed in detail where we are in regard to the Syrian settlement» and mentioned a meeting of the International Syria Support Group that will take place in New York on Dec. 18 with both sides in attendance. Kerry said he agreed with Putin that Syria must hold elections and that the Syrian people must themselves decide the future of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Kerry said late on December 15 that his talks with Putin and Lavrov did not focus on what can immediately be done about Assad, but rather, focused on the process of a political transition in Syria. «Russia and the United States agree that you can't defeat Daesh without also de-escalating the fight in Syria», the Secretary of State said, adding that both Moscow and Washington are «focused on political process» and that «Syrians will be making decisions on the future of Syria».
This is a notable shift from the United States' earlier insistence that al Assad should not play a role in Syria's political transition. After talks with Putin and Lavrov, Kerry also agreed that neither al-Nusra Front nor the Islamic State will be part of the Syrian opposition talks. «Islamic State, Nusra Front and other terrorist groups pose common threat to us, and we reaffirmed today our mutual determination to root out this evil», Lavrov said.
Ukraine is another contentious issue between the United States and Russia that has potential for progress. The both sides pledged allegiance to the Minsk accords.
Russia and the US have agreed on a number of ‘critical’ issues, particularly with regard to Syria, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said following talks in Moscow. «The US stands ready to work with Russia», Kerry told journalists after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lavrov on Tuesday, Dec.15. He added that the two countries’ officials had «a productive day» and the discussions had been «constructive».
«Despite our countries’ differences, we demonstrated that when the United States and Russia pull together in the same direction, progress can be made», the Secretary stressed. Calling the effort «good diplomacy», the top US diplomat said that the whole global community benefits from such cooperation. «We met here today not as Russia and the US behind the back of other members of the international group on Syrian support, but as co-chairs of this group», Lavrov said, adding that only an «inclusive format» and the collective efforts of all the members of the Syria group can lead to success. «There are concrete ideas on how to most actively implement» the peace deal in the region, Lavrov said, adding that Moscow hopes to remain in close contact.
«We don’t seek to isolate Russia as a matter of policy», Kerry said. «But we have consistently said that the world is better off when Russia and the US find common ground and an ability to be able to work together». This is an obvious change of position. It makes spring to mind the remarks made by President Obama this January when he said that «Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters».
* * *
Too important to miss is the fact that Russia and the US agreed on the need to cut the Islamic State from money flows. The group is estimated to hold at least $2 billion — half of which it plundered from Mosul banks last year. According to U.S. Treasury Department, the Islamic State receives another $500 million annually as revenue from smuggled oil.
With the sale of cultural artifacts and antiquities and taxing its subjected people, the group’s income exceeds a billion dollars annually.
The funds will be spent on tacks in Europe, bribing potential adversaries in the Middle East, stimulating the rank-and-file and acquisition of weapons and ammunition.
Now the agreement is reached between the US and Russia on a resolution that will be presented to the full UN Security Council. Probably, that the text will include extensive reporting requirements to the Security Council from the U.N. Counterterrorism Committee, member states, and the Secretary General on implementation and compliance by individual states. The terrorist group enjoys an extensive system of taxation, monetary fees and penalties, and extortion within the territory it controls. Without a ground operation hardly anything can be done to destroy the system of «filling terrorists coffers». No matter that, the UN can limit the routes that smugglers use to transport the oil to Turkey and the Kurdish regions and prevent importing the oil that is produced. The Council can authorize the counterterrorism committees to monitor activity in the states bordering Syria to ensure the illegal oil trade is contained to one country.
The U.N. Security Council can insert a provision into the text of the resolution to make Turkey intensify the efforts aimed at enhancing control over its border with Syria, including the border area (about 60 miles) remaining open to Islamic State oil exports. True, the Security Council cannot work wonders by waving a magic wand. But it can provide a basis for an effective international efforts led by the US and Russia acting closely coordinating activities with each other. This opportunity cannot be wasted; instead it must be maximized to the greatest possible extent.
There is another hot issue that has negatively affected the bilateral relations. Unlike before, it’s it has not been touched upon this time. For instance, this year the US has ramped up the controversy on alleged violations of Intermediate Nuclear Forces by Russia. The US claims that Russia has a cruise missile launched by Iskander launcher that has a range over 500 km. Another one, called Rubezh, which is currently in development, is classified as intercontinental with a range of 6,000 km, but Washington alleges it can hit targets closer than 5,500 km. The accusations have been refuted by Russia. Rose Gottemoeller, the U.S. Under Secretary of State for International Security, told Congress in December 2015 that «we had no information or indication as of 2008 that the Russian Federation was violating the treaty. That information emerged in 2011». And she repeated that «this it is not a technicality, a one off event, or a case of mistaken identity», such as a SLCM launched from land.
On Oct. 7, when four Russian warships in the Caspian Sea launched a reported 26 Kalibr SS-N-30A cruise missiles at targets in Syria, nearly 1,000 nautical miles away.
The Kalibr missile used in the strikes is an improved version of the Granat land-attack cruise missile, similar to the US Navy’s Tomahawk that travels at subsonic speeds. Designated 3M-14T by the Russians — SS-N-30A is the NATO designation — the Kalibr long-range version has only recently reached operational status. A submarine-launched version is in service, along with a ship-launched version equipping larger ships, including the Project 1161K Gepard-class light frigate Dagestan, which took part in the operation. But until now it was not clear that smaller ships, including the Project 21631 Buyan-M corvettes that also took part in the Oct. 7 attacks, could operate the weapon. With a range of 2,000 kilometers the Russian navy could target facilities in all European NATO countries without even leaving port (except Spain and Portugal), most of the Middle East, as well as Japan and South Korea.
Now with a series of highly advertised sea- and air-launched cruise missile attacks against targets in Syria, the Russian government has demonstrated that it doesn’t have a military need for the controversial ground-launched cruise missile that the United States has accused Russia of developing and test-launching in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. The issue appears to leave the bilateral agenda.
Hans M. Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, comes to conclusion that «Now that Russia has demonstrated the capability of its new sea- and air-launched conventional long-range cruise missiles – and announced that they can also carry nuclear warheads – it has demonstrated that there is no military need for a long-range ground-launched cruise missile as well. This provides Russia with an opportunity to remove confusion about its compliance with the INF treaty by scrapping the illegal and unnecessary ground-launched cruise missile project. Doing so would save money at home and begin the slow and long process of repairing international relations».
It’s up to Russia to decide if the missiles will be armed with nuclear warheads. No international agreement bans it. It can do it as a good will gesture, if the international situation allows. But that’s a horse of another color. At present, the Russia’s demonstrated capability to deliver long-range strikes against land targets from sea appears to make the INF violation controversy a thing of the past.
* * *
No matter the existing differences, Russia and the US have made an important step forward by joining efforts to come up with a draft of UN resolution on Syria. The both sides express the readiness to cooperate in other areas of mutual concern. On Dec. 13 the met in Rome to take part on an international conference on Libya discussing the possibility of taking a military action to strike the Islamic State there. The US promised to act as a mediator to mitigate tensions as Russia-Turkey relations deteriorate. Ukraine in constantly on the agenda. The newly anti-terrorist coalition led by Saudi Arabia is a burning issue to hit the Russia-US agenda.
* * *
All told, there are too many problems for Russia and the US to tackle. It was the second visit by the US Secretary of State to Russia for the last 7 months and, moreover, that just as the previous visit in May it was organized upon the US side’s earnest request. Evidently, arguments about Russia being internationally isolated hold no water now. It’s not relevant anymore.