On Monday, the day before John Kerry’s arrival in Sochi to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement blasting the United States. “Russian-US relations are passing through a difficult period caused by targeted unfriendly actions by Washington,” the statement said. “The White House groundlessly blamed Russia for the Ukrainian crisis, which in fact was largely provoked by the United States itself. In 2014, the Obama administration chose the path of scaling back bilateral relations, proclaimed a course of isolating Russia on the international arena and demanded that those states that traditionally follow the lead of Washington support its confrontational steps.” Welcome to Russia, Mr. Secretary!
Officially, Kerry went to Sochi to discuss cooperation with Russia on various regional issues, such as Syria, Iran, and Ukraine. But the decision to travel to Russia flies in the face of the isolation of Russia his boss bragged about back in January.
In his State of the Union speech this past January, President Obama took credit for leading the campaign to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. “…[I]t is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters. That’s how America leads—not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.”
Putin has done nothing to merit a visit by the U.S. Secretary of State. As recently as Saturday, during the military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, Putin slammed the U.S. for “attempts to establish a unipolar world. We see the strong-arm bloc thinking, gaining momentum. All that undermines sustainable global development.” And that is mild compared to most of Putin’s attacks against the U.S.
Worse, Putin has continued supporting forces fighting in eastern Ukraine in violation of a ceasefire agreement struck in February and has built up Russian forces along the border with Ukraine in preparation for a possible full-scale invasion.
Russia continues to support Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter of the Syrian people through arms deliveries and diplomatic backing, so cooperation on Syria seems unlikely. Same on Iran, since Putin announced a month ago that Russia would deliver S-300 missiles, a sale which former President Dmitri Medvedev had suspended in 2010, and which would significantly boost Iran’s defensive capabilities against a possible military attack. Rather than condemn Putin’s S-300 announcement, Obama expressed “surprise” that Russia had held off on the delivery of such systems for so long, a view echoed by Kerry in Sochi.
Internally, Putin continues the worst crackdown on human rights in Russia in decades. His demonization of Russian opposition figures created an environment in which the tragic murder of Boris Nemtsov on February 27, gunned down meters from the Kremlin, is not a surprise.
Putin and his Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, have offered no solutions for the Ukraine crisis and demand that the West, not Russia, change its policies and lift sanctions. They have wooed certain European leaders, especially from Greece, Hungary, Cyprus, and the Czech Republic, in the hope that they will not go along with extending sanctions on Russia at the European Union’s next leaders summit in June.
Kerry’s visit follows by a few days a visit to Moscow by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who paid her respects for the tremendous losses inflicted on the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany 70 years ago. In a press conference following a two-hour meeting with Putin, Merkel spoke in blunt terms. “We have sought more and more cooperation in recent years,” she said of Russia and Germany. “The criminal and illegal annexation of Crimea and the warfare in eastern Ukraine has led to a serious setback for this cooperation.”
“I would like also to recall that the end of World War II did not bring democracy and freedom for all in Europe,” Merkel added regarding the Soviet sphere of influence established over large parts of Eastern and Central Europe, including her native East Germany.
Kerry, by contrast, offered platitudes, saying he was “privileged to spend many hours” with Putin and Lavrov (most people would find such an experience excruciating). His trip to Sochi makes the Obama administration look weak and desperate and will likely trigger a stream of Western visitors to seek a meeting with Putin, completely ending the isolation of Russia. If Russian officials are serious about solving the Ukraine crisis (and that would require fully withdrawing from Ukraine and respecting its sovereignty and territorial integrity), let them come to us. They know what they need to do—they simply refuse to do it.
Instead of contracting out to Merkel responsibility for solving the Russia-Ukraine crisis and meeting with Putin, the White House should lead the effort in providing massive financial assistance to Ukraine and the military means for Ukraine to defend itself, while ramping up sanctions on Putin’s regime. Rather than Sochi, Kerry should be going to Prague, Athens, and other European capitals to ensure EU sanctions are maintained. The Obama administration has confused tactics (maintaining unity with the EU) with objectives (getting Russia out of Ukraine and helping Ukraine succeed). Obama seems to have lost interest in Ukraine and Europe more broadly, and Putin senses that. John Kerry’s visit to Sochi isn’t going to fix that problem. It may even create new ones.