US State Secretary John Kerry has just wrapped up his trip to Moscow (March 23-25). The very length of the visit makes it stand out. Spending three days in one capital is unusual for the top diplomat who has a very busy schedule traveling around the world.
It reflects the importance attached by the United States to the relations with Russia and the issues on the bilateral agenda. Obviously, there are compelling reasons to cooperate on some key matters that make the State Secretary «a frequent guest» in Russia.
This was his third visit to the country in 10 months and the 18th meeting between the foreign ministers in the past year. He previously visited Russia in May and December 2015.
The event was marked by relaxed atmosphere, something that has not been seen in the Russian-US dialogue for a long time. It bore witness to the change in relationship. «I'd like to take this opportunity to wish you Happy Birthday», Kerry told his Russian counterpart. «I know it will give you wisdom in our talks today». Not to be outdone, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov quipped back, «If wisdom is measured in birthdays John, I'm still behind you». Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed John Kerry with a joke noting that Mr Kerry had carried his own briefcase off the plane and wondered if the lack of a baggage carrier was either a sign of hard economic times in the United States or special contents in the case. The President surmised that it may have been money to haggle with on key issues. The State Secretary told the President he would be pleasantly surprised to know what’s inside during the planned tête-à-tête meeting.
The top-level talks on March 23-24 could be construed as a sign that the tensions may be thawing. It cannot be denied that there has been a significant shift in the relations in recent months. Only a year ago, the tone from Washington was strikingly different with the US President emphasizing that Russia was a regional power, acting out of weakness and simply needed to be contained, but not paid much attention to.
Obviously, the talks were not simple: Kerry’s meeting with Lavrov lasted for four hours, while his meeting with Putin was just as long. Mr Lavrov and Mr Kerry said they discussed a host of international issues, as well as some affecting Russian-American relations with the twin issues of Syria and Ukraine to top the agenda. The results of Kerry’s visit demonstrate that the two countries’ positions on these issues are not as far apart as before. In the case of Syria Kerry said that he had «reached a better understanding of the decisions that President Putin has made of late» – a kind of talk that is very much different from what it had been like before.
The visit was intended to help sure up momentum for the Geneva talks on Syria. So far, only basic starting principles for negotiating have been agreed upon but little else. Now the parties got down to brass tacks on what that political transition should look like agreeing on a target schedule to establish a framework for political transition in Syria and draft constitution to be drawn up by August. This is not markedly different from the six-month deadline set by the United Nations Security Council resolution passed in December to establish the guidelines for the peace talks. The foreign chiefs confirmed that pushing the warring sides in Syria to direct talks was a common goal. The two also agreed to push for a guarantee the sides would not seize new territory or use indiscriminate weapons like barrel bombs. At the press conference after the talks in the Kremlin, Kerry said he was «pleasantly surprised» that the truce in Syria was possible at all and has been observed for almost a month.
On Ukraine, there was also a more conciliatory tone than usual. Lavrov pointed out that there were no disagreements on the way to peace in the eastern regions and that there was no alternative to the implementation of the Minsk II agreements. Kerry confirmed that sanctions imposed on Russia by the US over the crisis in Ukraine would be rolled back after the agreements’ provisions were brought into life. There is something Ukrainian officials may not be happy about – it strikes the eye that Victoria Nuland, the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, was not invited to take part in the talks behind closed doors on Ukraine between Secretary Kerry and President Putin. At the same time John F Tefft, US ambassador to Moscow, was there. Nuland is known for lobbying Kiev’s interests in Washington.
Alexei Pushkov, the head of Russia’s Foreign Affairs Committee in the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, tweeted on the results of the visit that «There's nothing more powerful in politics than need. Under its influence, forgetting about isolating Russia, the US has begun to move».
On March 26, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov noted progress in relations between Russia and the United States. «I think it is possible to say that there have been positive advances. They lie in mutual atmosphere, because if we compare the atmosphere with what it was a year ago, then of course there is an evident desire to communicate, and there is readiness. At least now the understanding has matured of there being no alternative to dialogue to resolve issues which cannot be delayed», he said.
The visit definitely clarified that the plans to isolate Russia have been left behind. The US knows that isolation is infeasible. Despite sanctions and the issues that divide the parties, the progress on Syria has demonstrated that the two countries are indispensable partners in addressing burning security issues. No breakthroughs, but the event was a signal that Russia and the US return to a broader reconciliation and effective partnership, if not friendly ties.