US-Russia thaw? Kerry arrives in Moscow for Syria talks

Though a breakthrough is unlikely, there is a growing cooperation on Syria, which many Russians hope will ease the tensions between the Washington and Moscow. 

Andrew Harnik/Pool/Reuters
US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives at Vnukovo international airport near Moscow Wednesday.

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Moscow Wednesday to discuss resolutions to the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

It's the US secretary of state's third visit to Russia in less than a year – and his first since Mr. Putin announced a pullback of Russian forces in Syria earlier this month.

But more than offering the possibility of resolution to the drawn-out conflicts, Mr. Kerry's visit is also boosting Russian hopes that the cold war-like freeze of the past two years may ease in favor of more pragmatic and cooperative relations.

Despite sanctions and the bitter war of words between Washington and Moscow, the progress on Syria has, for many Russians, demonstrated that the two countries are indispensable partners in addressing the conflict-ravaged country. The hope is that Kerry's visit will lead to a broader reconciliation. No one expects a breakthrough during his two-day stay, but some say it could signal a return to more normal relations, if not friendly ties.

"There are people close to Putin who understand that this situation, in which the US and Russia are at loggerheads everywhere in the world and talk about each other as enemies, cannot go on indefinitely," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "Just on economic grounds, something has to be done to change the equation."

'A key lesson'

The pivotal issue up for discussion in Moscow is Syria, where Russia's six-month military intervention appears to have changed the conversation and established that the road to any political settlement runs through Moscow.

Putin announced last week that Russia is pulling out the bulk of its forces from Syria after having accomplished its main objectives. The pullback prompted Kerry to visit Moscow with the hope of advancing the tentative peace process for the civil-war-wracked country.

The Obama administration is largely uninterested in a general thaw in relations with Russia, says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal. But the White House has been compelled to work with Moscow in framing a Syria solution. This could lead to a new era of "selective engagement," where constructive dialog applies to problems where the two sides can work together, while the acrimonious tone on other issues continues unabated.

That would actually be a big improvement over the confrontational spiral of the past two years, he adds.

"What we see from the Syrian example is that the US and Russia remain the only two countries that are able accomplish anything," he says. "There are many others with their hands in the Syria crisis. But it was the growing alignment of interests between Moscow and Washington that brought about a truce, and compelled various parties to come to the bargaining table in Geneva. No one else, or any combination of other powers, could have done that. This is a key lesson that needs to sink in."

Putin appears to have played the Syria intervention with an eye not so much to ensuring victory for his Syrian client, Bashar al-Assad, but to forcing the US to treat Russia as an equal and work toward a deal at least partially on Moscow's terms. Russia's drawdown of forces in Syria, experts say, was as much a warning to Mr. Assad to play ball at the Geneva talks as it was a gesture to the US that Russia is prepared to compromise.

"The pullout reminds us that Putin is a good chess player. Though he may not be a great strategist, he does know when and how to move," says Mr. Kremeniuk. "It undercuts the idea that Russia is running wild in the world, shows that our goals can be limited and reasonable, while putting the ball in the US's court to respond in kind."

Adieu, Assad?

The next steps in Syria will involve setting out a political process that brings all Syrian opposition forces who are willing to deal with the Assad regime to the table, and outlining a transition that might see Assad eventually leave, Russian experts say.

"Russia is not so sure about Assad anymore. I think the pullout showed that we are not willing to go all the way with him," says Mr. Lukyanov. "I think we're on the way to creating a process where Assad isn't the main part of a political settlement. So Russia's view would be that if Assad is the main obstacle, then a settlement should go forward with consideration to the future of the Syrian state, not Assad."

But no one seems able to say how cooperation over a few issues might lead to a more general relaxation of East-West tensions. The crisis in Ukraine continues to appear intractable, while NATO is building up forces in Europe and the accusatory tone in both Russian and Western media is harsher than ever.

Lukyanov says that Russians are watching the US elections with anticipation. "There are clear signs that Americans want a change of direction, and they're backing outsiders who have very new and different views. I realize their frustrations are mainly about domestic affairs, but the chaos in foreign policy is the other side of the coin. At least in the longer term, it's not unreasonable to hope for fresh approaches."

Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the international affairs committee of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament, says hopes for quick improvement are probably overblown. "I think Obama is focused on other things, like Cuba, to make his legacy. With Russia he's just doing the minimum that he has to. We shouldn't hope for serious change under his administration."

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