11 June 2015
Every time they meet, Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov raise hopes of cooperation between Washington and Moscow on international issues; they refer to their countries’ ability to “make a difference”, “make things happen”. This was again what they said in Sochi on 12 May 2015. What has followed inspires little optimism.
It may be worth remembering in this connection what Minister Lavrov said at the end of his introductory remarks during the joint press conference in Sochi:
“…Our president firmly emphasized that we are ready for as broad cooperation as possible and as close interaction as possible with the U.S.A. based on equal rights and mutual respect of interests and positions of each other…”
The people of Ukraine have the indisputable right to chart their future independently of any kind of external intervention. But this should not be an obstacle to trying to understand what underlies the Russian position on Ukraine.
In an article published in The New York Times on 13 March 2014, John J. Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago said that few American policymakers are capable of putting themselves in Mr. Putin’s shoes. And, he explained the background of the Ukraine conflict as follows:
“…The taproot of the current crisis is NATO expansion and Washington’s commitment to move Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit and integrate it into the West. The Russians have intensely disliked but tolerated substantial NATO expansion, including the accession of Poland and the Baltic countries. But when NATO announced in 2008 that Georgia and Ukraine “will become members of NATO,” Russia drew a line in the sand. Georgia and Ukraine are not just states in Russia’s neighborhood; they are on its doorstep. Indeed, Russia’s forceful response in its August 2008 war with Georgia was driven in large part by Moscow’s desire to prevent Georgia from joining NATO and integrating into the West…”
It is worth remembering that during the Yeltsin years (1991-1997) Russia implemented a radical privatization program encouraged by the West. The fall in oil prices added to Russia’s economic woes. GNP fell by 43%. Inflation reached record levels leading to social problems. All of that may also help explain Russia’s pent-up frustration with the West and President Putin’s failure to positively respond to President Obama’s call for a reset in relations during his visit to Russia in July 2009. An opportunity unfortunately lost…
During an interview with Italy’s Il Corriere della Sera on 6 June 2015 the Russian President, among other things, stated the following:
“… As for some countries’ concerns about Russia’s possible aggressive actions, I think that only an insane person and only in a dream can imagine that Russia would suddenly attack NATO… it is pointless to support this idea; it is absolutely groundless…”
And, in response to a question concerning cooperation with the US on Iran and John Kerry’s visit sending yet another message in this regard he said:
“You are right – it did. We are cooperating not only on the Iranian nuclear program, but on other serious issues as well. Despite America’s withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, our arms control dialogue continues.
“We are not just partners; I would say we are allies in addressing the issues related to non‑proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We are undoubtedly allies in the fight against terrorism. There are some other areas of collaboration as well…”
President Obama’s response came only two days later on 8 June 2015 in Germany, at the end of the G7 summit:
“… Ultimately, this is going to be an issue for Mr. Putin. He’s got to make a decision: Does he continue to wreck his country’s economy and continue Russia’s isolation in pursuit of a wrong-headed desire to re-create the glories of the Soviet empire? Or does he recognize that Russia’s greatness does not depend on violating the territorial integrity and sovereignty of other countries?”
As for Russia’s relations with the EU, this is what President Putin told Il Corriere della Sera:
“… We have always proposed a serious relationship. But now I have the impression that Europe has actually been trying to establish material‑based relations with us, and solely for its own gain…”
And, looking at Turkey’s own troubled relationship with the EU I can understand that.
It is standard diplomatic practice to hold summit meetings after extensive preparation on substance as well as procedure in order to avoid failure at the highest level. But it may not always be possible to agree on everything before the actual meeting of leaders. After all, they also need to take some risks bearing in mind that every high level meeting at least gives the parties a better understanding of the positions taken by the other side.
US and Russia need to look at the feasibility of an Obama-Putin summit. The UN General Assembly meeting in September may provide a good opportunity.