Ahead of Secretary of State John Kerry’s planned visit to Moscow next week to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Ukraine and Syria, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov poured cold water on hopes of finding common ground with the United States.
“As long as Obama’s deputy Joe Biden goes around Europe recommending continued sanctions against us without taking into account how Kyiv [Ukraine] is behaving under Western pressure,” Lavrov said in an interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica in reference to Ukraine-related sanctions, “we will not be able to reach any understanding.”
While Lavrov’s warning should be sufficient reason for Kerry to reconsider going to Moscow, there are several other reasons why he should rethink his travel plans.
First, by chasing after Russia’s leaders yet again, especially after Lavrov’s negative comments, Kerry reinforces the impression the Obama Administration has created throughout its tenure that we need Russia more than Russia needs us. If Russia wants sanctions removed, it should get out of Ukraine. If it wants to be taken seriously on Syria, it should stop propping up the murderous Bashar al-Assad regime and cease bombing non-ISIS targets. Putin has demonstrated no interest in pursuing either path.
Second, Kerry’s second trip to Russia this year would further undermine President Obama’s boast in his January 2015 State of the Union speech that the United States has led the isolation of 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,” Obama said then.
Although Vice President Biden has been to Ukraine four times since Russia’s invasion, Kerry’s trip to Moscow will be his second to Russia this year, whereas he’s visited Ukraine only once. Kerry has met with Lavrov far more times than he has with his Ukrainian counterpart. Obama, too, has met with Putin more times this year—on the margins of the G20 meeting, the UN General Assembly session in September, the climate summit in Paris—than he has with Ukraine’s leader. No wonder Ukrainian leaders are nervous about being sold out in pursuit of a deal on Syria.
Third, to this day, Putin denies that Russian forces have been in Ukraine (he initially denied they were in Crimea, too, the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia illegally annexed in April 2014). He claims that Russia is battling the Islamic State in Syria when the vast majority of Russian military strikes to date have been against non-ISIS targets. On both counts, Putin has lied. Why should the Secretary of State believe anything the Russian leader says now?
Fourth, Kerry’s public comments when he traveled to Sochi to meet with Putin and Lavrov in May made it sound as if Putin had cast a spell over him: Kerry noted how “privileged” he had been to spend four hours with Putin. The Russian leader launched a wholly unprovoked war against Ukraine that, according to the latest figures from the United Nations, has cost more than 9,000 lives, displaced some two million, caused billions in losses to Ukraine’s fragile economy, and violated numerous treaties and norms that have kept the peace in Europe, more or less, for decades.
Putin has supported Assad diplomatically and militarily, contributing to the more than 250,000 killed in Syria and exacerbating the refugee flow out of Syria. And he has overseen the ugliest crackdown in decades inside Russia against civil society, journalists, and opposition figures, including the expulsion from Russia of numerous American organizations. (When, by the way, was the last time Kerry or Obama criticized the human rights situation in Russia?) Nobody should feel “privileged” to meet with a ruthless, authoritarian leader like Putin.
If all this fails to dissuade Kerry from going to Moscow, he needs at a minimum to reinforce the clear message delivered this past week in Kyiv by Vice President Biden, which triggered Lavrov’s blast.
In some of the strongest language used to date by a top-level American official, Biden declared in a speech before the Ukrainian parliament,
Today Russia is occupying sovereign Ukrainian territory. Let me be crystal clear: The United States does not, will not, never will recognize Russia’s attempt to annex the Crimea. And as Russia continues to send its thugs, its troops, its mercenaries across the border, Russian tanks and missiles still fill the Donbas. Separatist forces are organized, commanded and directed by Moscow—by Moscow. So the United States will continue to stand with Ukraine against Russian aggression.
Biden reassured Ukrainians that the United States will keep in place the sanctions against the Putin regime as long as Russia continues to violate its neighbor’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and fails to fulfill its commitments under the Minsk ceasefire agreement.
In Moscow, Kerry must reinforce Biden’s clear, tough message and not go wobbly. That would require breaking the spell Putin has cast over him and seeing the Russian leader for the threat he really is.