May 14, 2015
Positive rhetoric was coming out in the Russian media on May 13 and 14 on the Sochi talks between the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and both the Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov two days ago. The media pointed out that the visit to Russia was Kerry’s first in two years time, while the Federation Council International Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachyov said that “The Russian-U.S. meetings held in Sochi gave a chance for the restoration of confidence.” It was clear from the very beginning that the meeting was held as very important considering that Putin only welcomes at Sochi guests with whom he discusses most sensitive and serious issues.
While the press releases two days ago announcing the Sochi meetings mentioned Ukraine but also Syria and Iran to be the topics discussed, the most important topic for Russia is Ukraine. Ever since the Minsk Conference, the US has not been directly involved in the Ukraine-Russia talks and has let the Europeans – notably Germany – carrying the weight of PR and negotiations with Russia. Washington seemed to only focus on working with the borderland NATO members like Romania and Poland as well as with Ukraine on ensuring military presence and American support that Russia takes notice of.
After Sochi, Kerry has landed in Antalya on May 13 to brief the NATO Ministerial gathering the Alliance Foreign Ministers and, before joining them, he met with the Ukrainian foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin. Media also reports that he spoke over the phone with Poroshenko.
The fact that the Russian media is positive about the talks held indicates that Kerry said something that got Putin’s attention. It is also notable that at the press conference in Antalya Kerry emphasized the need for the Minsk agreement to be implemented but Crimea was not at all mentioned. That after the Russian media went frenzy about Merkel’s comments a few days ago about Crimean annexation being “criminal and illegal”. This may mean that the US is actually trying to start negotiations that would end in a real deal.
Another interesting news has come from the US Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemёller who allegedly told “Kommersant” in an interview that the US is “still ready to discuss with Russia the possibility of cooperation on missile defense”, even if negotiations have been ongoing for years. She also added “there are technical possibilities for Russia to verify the capabilities of the system”. Two years ago Russia was given the possibility to have some oversight on the BMD system but Moscow has refused it. In the same time, everything is proceeding as scheduled for both BMD sites in Poland and Romania. Therefore, this may be another topic way showing that the US is trying to talk seriously about ending the Ukrainian crisis, showing more flexibility over an issue that was much debated between Washington and Moscow. Without clear indications on what exactly the US is “ready to discuss”.
Kerry left Antalya for Camp David for the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit. In his statement following NATO Ministerial meeting he noted that “defining a clearer defense arrangement between the GCC and other friendly countries and the US is critical for pushing back against terrorism.” One of the topics to be discussed at Camp David is likely to be the establishment of a BMD system for the Gulf. Such a system would establish a network facilitating communication between the GCC countries on security threats and ensure information sharing at the military level. Considering current events, it is likely that the Russians are concerned with such a plan. Not because of the BMD system in particular, but because of the US footprint and what kind of US presence, involvement are coming along with the plan of building up the system.
Taking into consideration that the US nuclear deal with Iran dilutes Russia’s leverage in the Middle East, and Russia still has some ways to derail that deal, having included on Sochi agenda talks between Kerry and Putin over Iran makes sense. More, considering that the US administration understands the risks of supporting the rebels in Syria, and is not comfortable with the idea of radical Islamists at the forefront of the Syrian battlefield filling the potential future power vacuum in Damascus, Kerry and Putin had what to converse on Syria.
But those items are likely to have been peripheral for the leaders in Sochi, considering that Russian first interests relates to Ukraine – and to Russian economic performance, which is directly related to sanctions and thus, to Europe. Therefore, while the US diplomacy seems to be showing flexibility, Putin has also been interested to discuss all things helping him push for easing the sanctions. Something that the EU members – notably Germany – are also hoping for, considering the higher dependency that Berlin, and Europe in general has, on Russian energy (and trade), compared to the US.