Originally Published 2015-05-26 00:00:00 Published on May 26, 2015
Kerry's Russia visit signals Washington reaching out to Moscow and is the first sign towards normalising the US-Russia relationship. However, it will be prudent to say nothing more than that for now.
Kerry's Visit to Russia: Sign of a Thaw in US-Russia ties?
The American government's boycott of Russia's Victory Day celebrations commemorating its victory over the Nazis in World War II was noted around the world. This, despite the US and the erstwhile USSR were allies in the fight against Nazism in World War II. But there now suddenly seems to be a flurry of diplomatic activity between the West and Russia, more specifically between Moscow and Washington. Soon after the Victory Day celebrations, German Chancellor Angela Merkel flew to Moscow and called for cooperation with Russia on Ukraine. Merkel has been an important intermediary between the rest of the West and Russia ever since the Ukraine crisis erupted.

Soon after Merkel's visit, US Secretary of State, John Kerry, met President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, the first cabinet level visit by an American official since the Ukraine crisis. Before flying to Russia, Kerry met Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko and cautioned him against inciting further hostilities. Kerry also had a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. During the visit, Kerry discussed global issues and the state of US-Russia bilateral relations with the Russian leaders.

Kerry said "there is no substitute for talking directly to key decision makers, particularly during a period that is as complex and fast-moving as this is". Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland also visited Moscow soon after Kerry to discuss bilateral relations and further implementation of the Minsk accord. Nuland has also said that the US is planning to step up its role in mediating the crisis in Ukraine and has set up direct contacts between Moscow, Washington and Kiev to resolve the crisis.

Added to all this is President Barack Obama's statement that he will veto a bill passed by the House of Representatives which, among other things, allots $200 million for training and supplying lethal weapons for Ukraine forces. There are a few possible factors that explain this sudden change in attitude towards Russia.

First, the West's policy of isolating Russia has not worked. In response to the West's policy of isolating it, Russia has deepened and broadened its partnerships with several countries, especially China. Other countries like India and the rest of the BRICS countries, Central Asian countries, Pakistan, etc have not joined the US policy of isolating Russia.

With China, Russia has signed energy deals worth billions of dollars and has come to an agreement with it to marry the China's Silk Road initiative with its own Eurasian Economic Union project to create a common economic space in Eurasia. The two countries have stepped up their military engagement, with their navies participating in their first ever joint exercises in the Mediterranean.

In the military sphere, Russia is now willing to sell China more sophisticated military weapons and technology. The two countries are thus well on their way to becoming true strategic partners, a development which should worry the West. Remember, during the Cold War, the US-China alliance played a role in tilting the balance of power towards the US. If the reverse were to happen i.e. if a China-Russia alliance is established, it could tilt the balance of power in the Asia Pacific against the US. That is not a situation which would please American strategists.

Second, the economic sanctions imposed by the West on Russia have not worked as well as expected. Russia has managed to stay afloat thanks to hydrocarbon sales though its economy has contracted. Also, sanctions have helped Putin play the nationalist card and consolidate his position. In fact, Putin is more popular today in Russia than he was before the Ukraine crisis. Clearly, ordinary Russians have closed ranks behind him and blame the West for the recession of their economy.

Third, some of the US allies in Europe are beginning to tire of the protracted crisis in Ukraine and the policy of sanctioning and isolating Russia. Countries like Hungary and Germany have lost substantial business because of the sanctions on Russia.

Fourth, the US is slowly beginning to recognise that it needs Russia's help and cooperation on several issues like Iran, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, the Korean peninsula and fighting the IS. With time ticking for the final deal on Iran's nuclear programme, the US realises that it needs Russia's support more than ever as unity among the P5+1 is crucial to ensure that a deal is reached.

As Kerry himself said, Iran was one of the topics that was discussed between him and President Putin and Lavrov. On Syria, Kerry underscored the need for a political solution to the crisis in Syria, "negotiated by and for Syrians, and supported and facilitated by key external powers". Lavrov added that the two countries have "agreed to continue or probably even to build up our efforts and that - ensuring the launch of the process that could lead to implementing the agreements that we envisage in the Geneva communiqu� adopted on the 30th of June." Though Russia is not part of the Global Coalition against the IS, Moscow and Washington see eye to eye on countering the threat posed by violent outfits like the IS. The US and Russia both support denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

Fifth, both Russia and the US also agree on the need for a "genuine ceasefire" in Shyrokyne and "withdrawal of weapons and the demilitarization and monitoring by the OSCE". They want the Minsk agreement to be implemented. But they both now recognise that it is the rebels in Eastern Ukraine and the Poroshenko government which are violating the terms of the agreement. So, Moscow and Washington need to work together to put pressure on the rebels and on Kiev to implement the Minsk agreement. Kerry had said during his visit that the sanctions against Russia would be rolled back "if and when" the Minsk agreement is implemented.

Kerry's visit is a signal that Washington is reaching out to Moscow and is the first step towards normalising the US-Russia relationship. Perhaps, President Obama wants to come through on his promise to "reset" US-Russia relations. However, it remains to be seen how this seeming normalisation of ties will last, with reports about the US mulling over punishing Russia for allegedly violating the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty now emerging.

(The writer is a Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

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