Kerry couldn't set Moscow River on fire
By M K Bhadrakumar
The foreplay of Russian-American high-level exchanges can be very revealing. This time too the two sides indulged in some robust shadow play in the run-up to the overnight "working visit" of the United States Secretary of State John Kerry to Moscow on Tuesday.
Kerry's talks produced a significant result with Washington and Moscow agreeing on a "road map" for the resolution of the Syrian crisis. Part of the reason why the perception of a "breakthrough" formed almost instantaneously is because Kerry's visit took place
against a backdrop of dark forebodings.
The Israeli attacks on Syria with which, to put it mildly, Washington acquiesced, provided a strange "curtain-raiser" to Kerry's talks in Moscow. Indeed, Moscow was furious and President Vladimir Putin phoned up Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who was in Shanghai) and according to Debka, gave him a "dressing down", warning him of serious consequences if any such rash things were to be repeated.
Again, knowing full well that Syria would figure at the top of Kerry's agenda in Moscow, on Monday the US senate's foreign relations committee took up a draft bill proposing American military help for the Syrian rebel fighters It was no doubt a barely-disguised pressure tactic threatening Moscow that unless it compromised on Syria, Obama would arm the anti-regime fighters.
Finally, while on a "working visit", Kerry should have kept himself to government business, but he was to hold a meeting with Russian civil society activists in the embassy residence in Moscow, knowing full well the sensitivities in the Kremlin.
Least of all, it was a tasteless decision diplomatically to have hosted Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvilli in Washington just before Kerry left on his Russia visit. Kerry and Saakashvilli probably go back a long way, but the Georgian is a red rag for the Kremlin bull, and Putin has not cared to hide a visceral contempt toward him for having drawn Russian blood.
Suffice to say, Moscow was not exactly in a euphoric mood when Kerry landed at Vnukovo airport on his first visit to Russia as the US's top diplomat. He found himself cooling his heels in the airport lounge in Vnukovo for 30 minutes because, his hosts explained, there was a traffic jam in downtown Moscow due to a military parade.
Thereafter, Kerry's previously scheduled appointment at the Kremlin was itself delayed by three hours; the reason given was that Putin was taking a cabinet meeting, which somehow got extended.
To be sure, the timing was more than a coincidence that even as Kerry arrived on Russian soil, Moscow authorities raided the offices of three more NGOs and alleged that they have illegally received "considerable sums of money from foreign sources, first of all from US sources". The US-based organizations which have been incriminated include high-flyers such as the George Soros Foundation and the National Endowment for Democracy.
In sum, both Washington and Moscow seemed to have resigned already by Tuesday morning to a low expectation from Kerry's visit. Indeed, the thorny topics that separate them such as the Syrian situation, the Iran nuclear problem or the anti-missile defense system do not easily lend to reconciliation.
Moscow is yet to reply to a letter from President Barack Obama, which was handed over to Putin by the visiting National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon last month. The letter reportedly contained Obama's proposals on strategic nuclear disarmament, but Moscow links the subject with progress on the discussions over the US' anti-missile defense program.
Meanwhile, interestingly, two Russian Bear H nuclear capable bombers were spotted on April 28 and 29 flying into the US military's Alaska Air Defense Identification Zone and Alaska's North Slope region on the Arctic and Chukchi Seas where a strategic missile defense radar is located.
This was the fifth such incident since last June of Russian strategic bombers flying against supersensitive US military establishments, which used to be a cold-war era occurrence.
Who are the parties?
All things taken into account, Kerry came under pressure to show that his talks in Moscow were indeed fruitful. He took pains at the joint press conference with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, to display a significant breakthrough on Syria - while Lavrov let him do the talking. Lavrov said,
Russia and US will work to bring the Assad regime and the opposition together for talks aimed at finding a political solution to the crisis. We have also agreed to hold an international conference in late May to build on a transition plan set out last year in Geneva. Russia and US confirmed their intention to respect Syria's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
While Kerry exuded optimism that the Syrian opposition is prepared to sit with the Assad regime and has already adopted an approach that is "inclusive and democratic", Lavrov said he would suspend judgment for the present.
As for Syria's territorial integrity, Moscow will factor in that the US needs to not only walk the talk but also bully its regional to roll back their huge financial, material and financial support to the Syrian opposition fighters.
At one point Kerry could only barely hold back from repeating Washington's call for regime change in Syria. He said:
Our position has been that it's impossible for me as an individual to understand how Syria could possibly be governed in the future by the man who has committed the things that we know have taken place. But that's not - I'm not going to decide that tonight. And I'm not going to decide that in the end. Because the Geneva communique says that the transitional government has to be chosen by mutual consent by the parties. Who are the parties? The parties are the current regime and the opposition.
Lavrov, however, held his ground that the Syrian regime simply cannot be excluded from the political dialogue. He said:
The Syrian people is not an abstract notion, it is not the regime alone, it is not the opposition, which has lived abroad for years, alone, it is the entire nation. A major part of the population is afraid that the regime might be overturned. They are afraid that those who are fighting against the regime might take an upper hand and Syria will become a country ruled by extremists.
Again, Kerry somewhat fudged the date of the conference and qualified that "as soon as is practical, possibly and hopefully by the end of this month, we will convene - seek to convene an international conference as a follow-on to last summer's Geneva conference."
Equally, when asked to comment on the US draft law mooted on the Hill on Monday regarding arms supplies to Syrian rebels, Kerry declined to answer directly. Moscow, for sure, will make a careful note of Kerry's ambivalence.
The US officials sought to create the impression that Kerry hoped to "push Putin on Syria" through two new angles, namely, US threats to arm the Syrian opposition and the evidence of Syrian government use of chemical weapons.
This was a lousy diplomatic tactic and probably boomeranged, given that Putin hates to be seen buckling under American pressure. In the event, the US shifted its position on the core issue; namely, its demand that the Assad regime should quit as a prelude to any dialogue.
On the other hand, a new challenge now arises for both sides. For Moscow, it becomes important to hold Kerry to his word as regards the imperative of an inclusive political dialogue that includes the government.
For Washington, on the contrary, there lies the challenge of persuading the rulers of its Saudi, Qatari and Turkish allies into accepting that Assad is a legitimate participant in the Syrian dialogue, no matter their intense antipathy toward him.
What probably strengthens the US hand is that the European allies are "very satisfied" with the US-Russia agreement that "the solution of the [Syrian] conflict lies in a comprehensive political settlement."
But then, there is a deafening silence in Riyadh, Doha and Qatar about the "breakthrough" achieved in Kerry's Moscow talks.
On balance, Russian cannot but estimate that the Obama administration and Kerry, in particular, is under enormous pressure from congress, influential sections of the US strategic community, and indeed America's Persian Gulf allies and Israel - as well as from within the foreign-policy establishment itself - to "do something" about Syria.
But the Obama administration is also acutely conscious that the American public disfavors US involvement in a new round of war after a decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, which took the lives of 6,000 US service members.
Moscow perceives Kerry to be an amenable interlocutor. The leading Russian political thinker Sergei Karaganov recently pointed out that Kerry's predecessor, Hillary Clinton, was preachy about "moral values" and ended up irritating many Russian officials.
Thus, the Russian side could have gone a bit out of the way to strengthen Kerry's hands at this juncture. But then, it was, arguably, a bit too much to expect, given that for both Russia and for the US, key interests are involved and the policies on major global issues would ultimately prevail.
Kerry himself set a somewhat low benchmark for his visit assessing beforehand that it would lead to a full-fledged "healthy" dialogue between the US and Russia. That is happening with Putin slated to meet Obama next month on the sidelines of the Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland.
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).
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