23 January 2015
In June 2009 President Obama visited Moscow where he expressed his desire for a “reset” in US-Russia relations. This did not happen.
On 17 December 2010, Muhammed Buazizi lit the flame of the Arab Spring which spread fast.
On 18 March 2011 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 on Libya. Russia and China abstained. Western military intervention led nowhere.
Then the situation in Syria started to deteriorate. It soon became clear that Russia and China would not allow another “1973”, this time for Syria. The “Geneva Process” which aimed at political/diplomatic solution was fruitless.
Yet, on 14 September 2013 Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov were able announce their countries’ agreement on the “Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons”.
Here are excerpts from the joint the press conference they held to announce the agreement.
Mr. Kerry stated the following:
“… The United States and Russia have not always seen eye to eye; that is known. And we still don’t see eye to eye on everything. But … ensuring that a dictator’s wanton use of chemical weapons never again comes to pass, we believe, is worth pursuing and achieving…
“… Now, on larger issues, on Iran, Russia and the United States cooperate. On North Korea, Russia and the United States cooperate. On WTO, we cooperate. On START Treaty, we cooperate. On the reduction of nuclear weapons, we’ve been cooperating…
“… So I think – I hope Sergey feels the way I do – there are things we disagree on. But big nations, powerful nations, leaders, cannot afford to get caught up in the small things. And President Putin, to his credit, despite real disagreement with our policy, despite a disagreement with where we were heading, reached out and tried to continue the dialogue. So I would say look for the glass being half-full rather than half-empty, and let’s see how we proceed from here.”
And, Mr.Lavrov responded by saying:
“… this agreement… shows that when there’s a will, when we have intent of the states, when we have friendly relations, Russia and the United States can get results on the most important problems, including the weapons of mass destruction problem…”
All of this sounded very positive and gave me the impression that US-Russia relations could be heading towards a “reset”.
Only two months later President Yanukovych abandoned the Association Agreement with the European Union and the Ukraine crisis started to unfold.
On 18 March 2014 President Putin signed the decree to absorb Crimea into Russia. On 17 July 2014 came the downing of MH17.
It was no longer a “reset” but “upset”, sanctions and counter-sanctions.
Yet again, Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov met in Paris on 14 October 2014. This time they held solo press conferences.
Mr. Kerry said:
“… Now, it is no secret that the United States and Russia have had our differences over Ukraine. But I want to emphasize what I said at the beginning of these comments. We came together today in order to try to focus on those issues where we can find the capacity to be able to make a difference to other countries, to the world in general, and certainly to the relationship between Russia and the United States…
“…We also agreed we have to tackle head-on those areas where we have a profound difference and find a way to try to work through those differences constructively. We know that when the United States and Russia do succeed in working together, the world can become a safer place, as was evidenced in our historic agreement to remove all of the chemical weapons that were declared under the conventional weapons system from Syria…”
And this is what Mr Lavrov had to say on the broad relationship with the US:
“…The overall conclusion was that we understand that Russia and the US play a special role in global efforts to solve the problems that affect all peoples and states without exception. In a range of cases we can interact more effectively to make the efforts of the entire world community more effective. These are primarily related to the fight against terrorism which is becoming the main threat in large areas of Middle East and North Africa…”
What was said by Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov cannot be empty words.
Now, with falling oil prices, Russia’s economic difficulties and frequent references to violations of commitments taken under disarmament agreements, Ukraine conflict seems to have entered another escalatory phase.
On 5 December 2014, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that it is possible that France never deliver the two Mistral class naval vessels to Russia.
Yet, only a day later President Hollande told France Inter that President Putin does not intend to annex Ukraine but does not wish to see Ukraine joining NATO. After underlining what the West expects from Russia for a peaceful settlement he said that Russia is faced with difficulties but Russia having a crisis was not necessarily a good thing for Europe. He added that he was against making the situation worse and that the sanctions should be lifted provided there was progress. In a nutshell, he was urging a political solution.
German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel also signaled concerns about the effect of sanctions on Russia’s stability and told Bild am Sonntag newspaper that the goal was never to push Russia politically and economically into chaos.
In his last State of the Union Address President Obama said:
“Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, as we were reinforcing our presence with the frontline states, Mr. Putin’s aggression, it was suggested, was a masterful display of strategy and strength. That’s what I heard from some folks. Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters.”
I believe this was more a message to the domestic foreign policy critics of the Obama administration than an attempt to humiliate President Putin and Russia.
The West and Russia need to reach a modus vivendi if a good number of pressing problems which the world faces today are to be settled or at least managed through political/diplomatic channels. Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and ISIL are on top of the list. Libya is about to become a failed state. Yemen is in turmoil. Afghanistan faces many challenges. Boko Haram terror is wrecking northern Nigeria. There is a risk that jihadist terror might even destabilize Central Asia in not too distant a future, creating a zone of instability extending from the heart of Asia to the Middle East and to the western shores of Africa.
In most of these areas the West and Russia need each other’s cooperation. Continuing discord will be costly. It is time to put an end to hostilities in Ukraine and start focusing on Syria, Iraq and beyond.