Kerry to Sochi: Could it lead to a 're-reset' of US-Russian relations?

The trip suggests the Obama administration sees some hope for re-engaging with Russia, despite tensions over Ukraine.

Andrew Harnik/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry speaks May 6 during a joint press conference with Foreign Minister Mahamoud Ali Youssouf at the Presidential Palace, in Dijbouti, Dijbouti. The State Department says Kerry will travel to Russia this week for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

At the height of fighting in Ukraine last year, the Obama administration signaled that it considered diplomacy with Vladimir Putin’s Russia all but hopeless.

The United States joined the European Union in slapping sanctions on Russia’s economy over its Ukraine intervention, diplomatic channels on the Syrian conflict dried up, and President Obama reduced communications with Mr. Putin to a dysfunctional minimum.

The “reset” of relations with Russia announced in Mr. Obama’s first term was dead.

But now the Obama administration is signaling a willingness to explore the potential for renewed engagement with Russia, announcing Monday that Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Sochi to meet on Tuesday with Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

It may be going too far to call the brief meeting a re-reset. But sending Mr. Kerry to Sochi (he will subsequently attend a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Turkey) suggests the Obama administration – despite its harsh words in the past for Putin – also sees some hope for re-engaging with Russia and working on issues ranging from Syria to North Korea and the terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State (IS).

Despite the tensions and cooling of relations over Ukraine, Russia has remained a key partner in the talks that six world powers are engaged in with Iran over its nuclear program, and Russia has continued to honor its commitments under the New START disarmament treaty. At the same time Chechen separatists are showing up in Syria and now Afghanistan to fight alongside militants from IS, also known as ISIS – suggesting Russia and the US could face a common threat in the IS terrorist ideology.

Russia’s continued cooperation on issues like Iran and disarmament also has found favor with a US president whose signature diplomatic approach is engagement with those adversaries who are willing to unclench their fist and extend a hand, some diplomatic experts say.

“Looking at the optics of this [meeting], it’s very clear that what we have is Kerry flying to Sochi, not Lavrov flying to the US,” says Dmitri Simes, a noted Russia expert and president of the Center for the National Interest in Washington. “The initiative is from the US side.”

For its part, Russia is probably quite happy to demonstrate it can still work with the US – especially to a rising China, which sees a Russia cut off from Washington as a weaker neighbor with shrinking options.

But that doesn’t mean Putin will fall at Kerry’s feet, Mr. Simes says. The Russian leader will still want to demonstrate domestically that he can play hard to get when Russia’s interests are at stake.

By late Monday, Russian officials were still not confirming publicly that Putin would meet with Kerry, Simes notes, instead only speaking of the meeting with Lavrov as certain. That suggests Putin will wait for reports from the Lavrov-Kerry meeting before finally agreeing to meet with the chief US diplomat, he says.

“The Russians are very anxious to demonstrate that Putin hasn’t been isolated and that Russia is open for business, especially with the US, so I think they’d like to see this meeting with Putin take place,” Simes says. “But if Kerry comes with a list of demands for Russia or fails to acknowledge Russian interests, then I think Putin would rather not have it.”         

Topping the agenda of Tuesday’s meeting will be the four-year-old civil war in Syria and whether trends in the fighting might be opening a path to renewed pursuit of a political solution to the conflict. The leaders will also discuss the Iran nuclear talks and Ukraine in a meeting the State Department describes as “part of our ongoing effort to maintain direct lines of communication with Russian officials and to ensure US views are clearly conveyed.”

The meeting takes place as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has suffered a number of key battlefield defeats and as the US has launched a training program for fighters from the moderate opposition.

State Department officials say the US would like to see a return to the dormant diplomatic process that was aimed at finding a political solution to Syria’s civil war. With Mr. Assad seen to be increasingly vulnerable and the moderate opposition making some gains, the US senses the time for such an initiative may be ripe.

Russia might go along with relaunching the Syrian diplomatic initiative, especially if it promised new luster for Russia’s international image, some Russia analysts say.

But Simes says Putin also would want to use Russia’s cooperation on Syria to establish some parallels with the conflict in Ukraine and how the world should view the “opposition" in both conflicts.

“I think it’s unrealistic to expect the Russians to legitimize the quote-unquote democratic opposition in Syria while the US is pursuing its efforts to deny any recognition or support of the Ukrainian separatists,” he says.

Noting that Putin emphasized his support for a “standard” international approach to armed oppositions such as those defying central governments in Ukraine, Syria, and now Yemen, Simes says Kerry can expect to hear the same argument from Putin – if the two end up meeting.

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