Has Vladimir Putin scored a diplomatic victory against the Obama administration? Until last week, Washington was conspicuously absent from the negotiations to end hostilities in Ukraine’s eastern region of Donbas; and since the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, there had been no high-level US trips to Russia. On May 12, the US suddenly re-entered the fray. First, John Kerry, Secretary of State, flew to Sochi to meet the Russian president; then Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary, went from Kiev to Moscow for consultations.
Observers in Russia and the US depicted Mr Kerry and Ms Nuland as harbingers of a late-term Obama administration attempt to reset the “reset”, as the Obama administration’s 2009 effort to rekindle relations with Russia was known. This is a serious misinterpretation of the visits. The Americans were in Russia to reaffirm Washington’s position on matters such as Iran, Syria, and the war in Ukraine.
The negotiations with Iran over its nuclear weapons programme are at a critical juncture. Recent revelations about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s continued use of chemical weapons need to be addressed. And in Ukraine, Russia is on a dangerous collision course with the US and Nato. Over the past year, US-Russian relations have been conducted in a dangerously telegraphic manner.
There is only one person whose voice counts today in the Russian government: Mr Putin. The US has long been mindful of the risks of limiting its contact with the Kremlin, even as it has imposed sanctions on Mr Putin’s inner circle in response to the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Ukraine. Presidential phone calls and meetings between Mr Kerry and Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, have taken the place of broader discussions. The phone calls are mediated through interpreters, and there seems to be limited direct contact between Mr Lavrov and Mr Putin. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has led the international shuttle diplomacy on Ukraine, together with François Hollande, the French president. Ms Merkel has relayed messages and observations to Mr Obama, and conveyed western positions to Mr Putin. Even interlocutors of Ms Merkel’s calibre can be misinterpreted by both sides.
Since Mr Putin took office in 2000, his Kremlin inner circle has made itself as inscrutable and unpredictable as possible. It is as if they had drawn precisely the wrong lessons from 1914. In the first half of that year, every major power seemed to misread the actions and intentions of the others; by the end of it, many of them had stumbled into war.
Access to Mr Putin is strictly limited. No one outside the Kremlin is supposed to be able to divine his intentions. Those who deal with Russia spend a huge amount of time trying to figure out what he thinks and who, if anyone, has his ear. If there is a serious message you want to convey, there is no substitute for meeting the man himself.
The Bush administration suspended high-level relations with Moscow in response to the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. Only the two top military officials — Adm Michael Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen Nikolay Makarov, his Russian counterpart — maintained a degree of contact. Their long-standing professional relationship helped defuse some potentially disastrous incidents, such as a US airlift that picked up Georgian troops who had been deployed in Iraq and deposited them in Georgia, effectively inside the combat zone. One of the purposes of the reset was to avoid such dangers.
To avoid inadvertent escalation in Ukraine and deal with other crises, Washington has to reopen channels to Moscow. Professional military contacts are especially frayed. Meanwhile, Russia has returned to cold war-style posturing, at a time when that era’s rules of engagement and crisis hotlines no longer exist. Since 2014, Mr Putin has engaged in nuclear sabre-rattling. Russia regularly probes the air, land and sea defences of Nato members. Mr Putin calls this a counter-offensive against western aggression. Now Nato is engaged in its own counter-offensive, and Mr Putin risks underestimating the likelihood of western military action if Russia goes too far. An encounter between the Russian and Nato forces could set us all on a deadly path.
This is the message that Washington should be insistently reaffirming. Meeting with American officials, then, is no prize and no diplomatic victory for Mr Putin. Rather, such meetings are an opportunity to deliver serious messages. There is no real alternative to face-to-face meetings with Mr Putin and Russian officials.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution
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