Kerry-Putin Talks Could Deliver a Global Surprise

Kerry-Putin Talks Could Deliver a Global Surprise

REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

At 8:12 a.m. last Tuesday, Secretary of State Kerry Tweeted from Sochi, the Black Sea resort, with this mind-blower: “Had frank discussions with President #Putin & FM #Lavrov on key issues including #IranTalks, #Syria, #Ukraine.”

In 140 characters and a photograph, Kerry may have described the biggest thing he’ll get done as President Obama’s top diplomat. It’s early days and anything can happen between Washington and Moscow—as Kerry just demonstrated—but if this turn toward cordiality and cooperation holds, the consequences will refract like neutrons all over the planet.

And there’s nothing in any of the potential outcomes not to like.

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As Kerry’s Tweet made plain, the Obama administration’s motivations in this demarche go to three immediate issues—two key to stability in the Middle East and one that has made the phrase “Cold War II” common currency in the past year and a half. Analysts of all stripes are unanimous: Washington has now concluded that there’s no resolving any of these questions without Moscow’s help.

That’s sound thinking except that it’s late by at least a year. One thing above all others prompted Obama and Kerry to get smart quick: These guys have a year and a half to leave a legacy of any value on the foreign side, and there’s not much other than failure in the hopper at the moment.

In Syria, the administration should have come to wiser conclusions in September 2013, when Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, saved Obama’s bacon by persuading Damascus to give up its chemical weapons inventories. Remember Obama’s foolish “red line” gambit? Lavrov threw the life jacket. 

Kerry has said since mid-March that he wants new talks toward a political settlement in Syria, and Moscow is essential in making this happen. In this, the administration is straight out of Churchill: “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else.”

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It’s something of the same on the pending nuclear deal with Iran—which was the No. 1 topic in Sochi. It was Lavrov who got Tehran to consider, if not yet agree, to ship its stockpile of enriched uranium to Russia and re-import supplies as needed for peaceful purposes. With two and a half months before the deadline for this deal, Washington needs all five negotiating partners—Russia above all, I’d say—to keep their oars in the water.

As to Ukraine, its economy deserves emergency status, even if you read next to nothing in the news reports. Absent the kind of debt write-down the European Union refuses to grant the Greeks, Lawrence Summers argued in the Financial Times over the weekend, default is now a serious option.  

Equally, Kiev has done little to address the terms agreed in Minsk last February, which included new constitutional provisions granting rebellious eastern regions greater autonomy. With Europeans increasingly impatient and Russia not even close to stepping back, Kerry’s assistant secretary for European affairs, the controversial Victoria Nuland, was in Kiev two days after Kerry’s Sochi sit-down to confer on implementing the Minsk II agreement, of which Russia is a primary signatory.

Small wonder Kerry spent seven hours in back-to-back talks—three with Lavrov and four with President Putin. It was his first visit to Russia in two years, and these the objects of his attention—cooperation getting the Syria crisis under control, the final stitching on the Iran deal, and a settlement in Ukraine that—it’s finally clear in Washington—cannot be achieved other than via a negotiated compromise based on Minsk II.

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It’s a full agenda, but stop there and you don’t get the half of it. Look at the other factors that sent Kerry to Putin’s Black Sea resort residence:

• It has been clear for months that Washington’s assertive stance toward Russia has been a source of increasing trans-Atlantic tensions. The very real risk of a lasting rift in U.S.-E.U. ties can now be alleviated.

• European leaders are due to meet next month to consider the status of the U.S.-led sanctions regime, and at least six nations are on the record saying they’ve had enough. When Kerry hinted after the Sochi sessions that it could be time to step back, he opened a path away from an embarrassing display of disunity, if not mutiny.

• E.U-Russian relations can begin to mend, too. This is especially key on the economic side. The virtual freeze of banking operations, a drastic slowdown in investment flows, and Russia’s countersanctions against E.U. exports have all hurt the eurozone just as it struggles to recover from seven years of financial and economic crisis.

• Tensions within the E.U., heated of late, also stand to abate. Greece has been the most evident problem in this regard, as the Syriza government draws closer to Moscow in plainly purposeful defiance of the Brussels consensus. But Greece, we should note, is not alone in harboring these sympathies.

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Russian officials close to the Kremlin, to the perplexity of many Western analysts, have been advancing a worst-is-over line for several weeks. Putin added his voice when he met Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, just before the Sochi talks.

Indeed, sanctions may have backfired in certain respects. While Moscow announced a 1.9 percent drop in 1Q GDP Friday, it was less than expected, and Russia’s industry seems to have been energized. It reminds me of Rhodesia before it became Zimbabwe, when international sanctions forced a not-unimpressive manufacturing sector into being: If you can’t bring it in, make it.

The ruble, meantime, has come back so strongly this year that Moscow started buying $100 million to $200 million in foreign exchange daily last week to hold it down. 

Those hours in Sochi, let’s say, were long due, wherever you sit and however you look at it. Now to watch what comes of them.   

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