Talks between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Tuesday didn’t result in significant breakthroughs on the crises in Ukraine and Syria, or other issues related to the Middle East. However, the heightened attention surrounding the meeting in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi made Tuesday an optimal time for Putin’s remaining political opponents to release a report that they claim disproves the Russian government’s claims about the conflict in Ukraine.
Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula last year, but only admitted doing so months after soldiers in uniforms stripped of insignia, driving Russian vehicles also stripped of identifying markers, rolled into Crimea and took control of what had been Ukrainian sovereign territory. Russia later formally “annexed” Crimea, an action that is not recognized by the international community.
Also last year separatists began what amounts to a civil war in eastern Ukraine, attempting to cut off a large segment of the country in hopes of being similarly annexed by Moscow. Numerous international observers have documented the presence of Russian troops and materiel among the separatist fighters, but the Kremlin has consistently denied that any Russian troops are present there.
The report released Tuesday differs. Boris Nemtsov who was the most visible public opponent of Putin’s government until his murder just steps from the walls of the Kremlin earlier this year, began it. After his death, a group of his colleagues, working with Russian journalists, took up the task of finishing it.
Based on what the authors claim are interviews with the families of dead Russian soldiers as well as other research, the report asserts, “The Russian government provided active political, economic, personnel, and also direct military support to the separatists.”
It also estimates that 220 Russian soldiers have been killed fighting in Ukraine in support of the rebels there, and that between 8,000 and 10,000 troops remain there, under control of Russian officials, but supporting the Ukrainian separatists.
It is certainly not the first time that opponents of the Kremlin have tried to document the presence of Russian soldiers in Ukraine. Some have inadvertently self-reported, posting geo-tagged pictures on social media. Others have been captured, and Ukrainian officials have presented their passports to the public.
On Saturday, the Reuters news service published a special report featuring interviews with former Russian soldiers who have left the military because they oppose the ongoing secret campaign in Ukraine.
To all this, the Kremlin has responded with outright denials, claiming that any Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine are there strictly as volunteers. Putin himself, speaking to the Russian people last month said, “I tell you directly and definitely: There are no Russian troops in Ukraine.”
Putin, of course, very publicly denied any Russian involvement in the takeover of Crimea. Until, that is, he publicly celebrated the role of Russian troops in taking control of the disputed territory.
Yesterday’s talks in Sochi never seemed destined to result in major changes in the posture of either the U.S., which has spearheaded the imposition of damaging sanctions on Russia in the wake of the invasion of Crimea, or of Russia, which has remained defiant in the face of international criticism.
However, both government seem to view it as important to maintain some sort of ongoing dialogue, especially given that the interaction between Washington and Moscow isn’t limited to the events in Ukraine.
Both countries are major players in the ongoing talks with Iran over its nuclear program. And Russia remains one of the few international supporters of the regime of Bashar al Assad, the Syrian president-turned-dictator, whose troops have been accused of widespread war crimes in the effort to put down a complex rebellion comprised partly of Syrians seeking a democratic government and partly of Islamic radicals affiliated with ISIS.
Kerry reportedly met with Lavrov for four hours before meeting with Putin for an additional four hours.
“I’m grateful to President Putin for the significant amount of time he dedicated to today's discussions," Kerry said during a press conference held jointly with Lavrov. “There is no substitute for talking directly to key decision makers, particularly during a period that is a complex and fast moving as this is.”
After the meeting Thursday, Kerry had no triumphs to tout, but reported that the trio had “frank discussions.”
Through an interpreter, Lavrov said, “We have an understanding that we need to avoid steps which are able to inflict a long-term harm to bilateral relations between Russia and the United States.”
In remarks to reporters, Kremlin adviser Yuri Ushakov said that while Putin wants relations between the U.S. and Russia to return to normal, there was no significant progress made during Tuesday’s talks.
Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: