Expert in: International law, international relations. Alexander is a writer on international affairs with a special interest in Russia and law. He has written extensively on the legal aspects of NSA spying and events in Ukraine in terms of human rights, constitutionality and international law. He worked for 12 years in the Royal Courts of Justice in London as a lawyer, specializing in human rights and constitutional law.
Putin Kerry Summit shows US now realises Russia holds the high cards in Ukraine and wants to de-escalate its confrontation with Moscow, but does not mean an end of US hostility towards Russia or peace in Ukraine
Kerry’s recent meeting with Putin has provoked talk that the Ukrainian conflict is drawing to a close.
According to this view, the U.S. now realises that its attempt to isolate Russia and to engineer the victory of its Ukrainian proxies has failed, and it is now drawing down.
There is some truth to this view, provided it is clearly understood that this understanding extends to just the "realist” wing of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, and that it does not mean that the conflict in Ukraine itself is anywhere close to being over.
That the US’s foreign policy realists were looking for a way to draw the crisis down became clear in January from an article planted in Bloomberg (see US Wants End to Standoff, but for Russia to Make All the Concessions. Moscow Stays Cool, Russia Insider, 13th January 2015) and from a follow-up editorial in the New York Times (see Ukraine: An Editorial in The New York Times Suggests US Is Looking for a Face-Saving Way Out, Russia Insider, 4th February 2015).
The Bloomberg article said:
"This month, Obama’s National Security Council finished an extensive and comprehensive review of U.S policy toward Russia that included dozens of meetings and input from the State Department, Defense Department and several other agencies, according to three senior administration officials. At the end of the sometimes-contentious process, Obama made a decision to continue to look for ways to work with Russia on a host of bilateral and international issues while also offering Putin a way out of the stalemate over the crisis in Ukraine.”
The article identified Kerry as leading the realists within the Obama administration seeking to end the confrontation with Russia.
The article set out the terms the U.S. was offering Russia:
"Kerry has floated an offer to Russia that would pave the way for a partial release of some of the most onerous economic sanctions. Kerry’s conditions included Russia adhering to September’s Minsk agreement and ceasing direct military support for the Ukrainian separatists. The issue of Crimea would be set aside for the time being, and some of the initial sanctions that were put in place after Crimea’s annexation would be kept in place.”
As we discussed in our 13th January 2015 article, the Russians at the time were unreceptive to such a vague and one-sided offer.
The U.S. realists accordingly followed up with a more concrete offer for autonomy for the Donbass, which they floated in February in an editorial in the New York Times:
"Russian officials have suggested that Moscow has no interest in annexing eastern Ukraine, the way it grabbed Crimea, but rather seeks a Ukrainian federation in which the pro-Russian provinces would have relative autonomy, along with assurances that Ukraine will not move to join NATO.
There is definitely potential for negotiations there……..
Tempting as it is to focus on punishing Mr. Putin, the greater objective must be to end the fighting so that Ukraine can finally undertake the arduous task of reforming and reviving its economy. Toward that end, the West must make clear to Mr. Putin that if a federation is his goal, the United States and its allies will actively use their good offices with Kiev to seek a workable arrangement.”
That appears to be in essence the outline proposal that Kerry took with him to Sochi.
As we discussed in our 4th February 2015 article, the Russians have insisted on going much further, in effect replacing the federalisation plan they floated back in Spring 2014, with a much more radical proposal.
What is being proposed now is not a "federal” solution at all (at least not in the sense of what "federation” is commonly understood to mean in federal states such as the US), but a constitutional structure that would reduce Ukraine to the loosest possible confederation, kept permanently outside NATO and the EU (see Ukraine: Confederal Solution Looms, Russia Insider, 14th May 2015; see also the important discussion by Paul Robinson, Stuffing the Rebels Back Into Ukraine?, Russia Insider, 14th May 2015).
The two People’s Republics would not only control their own governance, but would be able to establish economic relations with other countries, control their borders, run their own military, and have a say over the formation of the Ukrainian government’s budget.
They would in effect be independent countries, only nominally part of Ukraine, but exercising a high level of influence or even control over Ukraine’s foreign and economic policies.
The tone of Kerry’s statements since his meeting with Putin in Sochi, and that of other U.S. officials, suggests that at least in private, the U.S. has grudgingly accepted this idea.
As we have also discussed previously, this idea is also exactly in line with what Der Spiegel says Putin and Merkel agreed in February in Moscow and Minsk (see Merkel in Moscow and Minsk: Der Spiegel Says Putin Has Won, Russia Insider, 18th February 2015). Indeed the proposal for a confederation that has now been published conclusively confirms the truth of what Der Spiegel says Putin and Merkel agreed with each other in February in Moscow and Minsk.
However it is important to maintain a sense of proportion and to understand clearly what has been agreed, and with whom, and what has not been agreed, and what remains in contention.
The realists in Washington have accepted what we have always said, that in Ukraine Russia holds the high cards and that the geopolitical objectives of the Washington hardliners who were behind the Maidan coup are unachievable.
The resilience of the Russian economy in the face of the oil price fall and the sanctions (with the first quarter contraction now confirmed at just 1.9% – far better than even the most optimistic predictions of a few weeks ago), Putin’s determination to stick to his guns on Ukraine (on full display at the summits in Milan and Brisbane and during the February negotiations with Merkel in Moscow and Minsk), and the surge in Putin’s popularity, now at unprecedented levels, have forced the U.S. foreign policy realists to accept that there is no prospect of forcing a change in Russian policy on Ukraine, or of putting the Russian government under serious domestic pressure, or of effecting the Russian government’s overthrow.
Since the policy followed throughout 2014 has clearly failed, it is no surprise that as realists they are now pragmatically looking for a way out, that will limit the damage to the U.S. and help it avoid a humiliating outcome in Ukraine.
However, this has limits.
Though the realists are for the moment in the ascendant in Washington, they are not the only voice there.
The hardliners have not gone away. They remain entrenched in the foreign policy establishment, the media and Congress. They continue to press for further confrontation and for more escalation in Ukraine. Given how volatile the situation is in Washington, it is by no means unlikely or impossible that the pendulum could swing back in their favour.
It is anyway important to stress that even the realists do not seek a genuine reconciliation with Moscow. At most they want to put the Ukrainian conflict to one side, to allow the U.S. to work with Moscow on other issues, in the US’s own interest. However they continue to see the relationship with Moscow as adversarial.
That this is so is confirmed by a passage in the Bloomberg article. It quotes an administration official (quite possibly Kerry himself) saying:
"I don’t think that anybody at this point is under the impression that a wholesale reset of our relationship is possible at this time, but we might as well test out what they are actually willing to do. Our theory of this all along has been, let’s see what’s there. Regardless of the likelihood of success.”
That what we are seeing is at most a tactical retreat, limited purely to Ukraine and caused by the failure of U.S. policy there, is confirmed by Bloomberg’s final paragraph, which however also identifies the obvious risk of the policy falling between two stools and failing to satisfy anybody:
"The administration’s cautious engagement with Moscow is logical: Why not seek a balance in a complicated and important bilateral relationship? But by choosing a middle ground between conciliation and confrontation – not being generous enough to entice Russia’s cooperation yet not being tough enough to stop Putin’s aggression in Eastern Europe – Obama’s policy risks failing on both fronts.”
Beyond that, no one should harbour any illusions this means peace in Ukraine.
As we have said many times, peace in Ukraine is impossible whilst the present government remains in power in Kiev (see again our detailed discussion, Ukraine Goes to War – and Always Will as Long as Maidan Holds Power, Russia Insider, 20th January 2015). The only way that would change is if the Western powers were to put overwhelming pressure on Ukraine to compromise.
Nothing Kerry did in Sochi suggests the U.S. is ready to do this. As we have discussed many times, Merkel and the Germans are also for the moment unwilling to do it, and the probability is they will never do it.
Given the vocal public support the Western powers have given to the Ukrainian government, it is now probably too late politically for the Western powers to undertake the sort of public volte face that would be needed to enable them to put pressure on it.
In the absence of such pressure, war is all but inevitable.
Ukraine’s failure to implement the February Minsk Memorandum shows that this is so.
The shelling of parts of the Donbass, including Donetsk airport, shows Ukraine has not abided by its commitment to withdraw its heavy weapons from the conflict zone.
Ukraine has utterly failed to implement any part of the Minsk Memorandum’s political provisions.
Ukraine refuses to negotiate directly with the leaders of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics as the Minsk Memorandum required it to do. It continues to call them "separatists” and "terrorists”.
The terms of the law on Special Status for the territories covered by the two People’s Republics were not agreed with their representatives as the Minsk Memorandum required. The law itself, which the Ukrainian parliament passed, was hedged around with conditions reaffirming Kiev’s suzerainty over the territories of the two People’s Republics in a way that was not envisaged by the Minsk Memorandum, and which is unacceptable to the People’s Republics.
The terms of the elections that were supposed to follow the law on Special Status have not been agreed, and the elections themselves have not taken place.
There is no sign of the constitutional negotiations which by the terms of the Minsk Memorandum Ukraine committed itself to.
Instead, rather than move ahead with the political provisions of the Minsk Memorandum, we see more moves towards confrontation and war.
Ukraine has passed laws outlawing the use of Communist symbols (including the Soviet flag).
Ukraine has declared the followers of the World War II Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera "freedom fighters”.
Ukraine is trying to replace the St. George ribbon, the symbol throughout the former USSR of the country’s wartime victory, with the West’s red poppy.
Ukraine wants to stop calling the war "the Great Patriotic War”, and wants to replace the term with the more neutral sounding and more Western "Second World War”.
Monuments to Lenin, and other monuments relating to Ukraine’s historic connection to the USSR and to Russia, continue to be attacked and demolished.
There has been a string of unsolved deaths and murders of opposition figures and activists, including journalists, with Ukrainian officials and media indulging in personal attacks on some of those killed, after their deaths.
Laws are proposed for the indefinite detention of Russians without trial, for the seizure without compensation or due process of property belonging to Russian citizens, and for the establishment of martial law.
The Ukrainian government continues to rule out any concessions on Ukraine’s unitary structure or on the language issue.
The Ukrainian government is pressing ahead with its construction of a wall along those parts of the border with Russia it controls.
President Poroshenko meanwhile talks publicly of his plans to retake Donetsk airport, which continues to be shelled by his forces.
These actions are not the actions of a government interested in peace or reconciliation. They are the actions of a government that seeks confrontation and which is preparing for war. Given its make-up and ideology, one can expect nothing else.
The discussions between Putin and Kerry in Sochi do not change this situation. It is unlikely either Putin or Kerry harbour any illusions that they do.
Rather they are an attempt by the realists on both sides to limit the damage to the U.S. Russia relationship of the war when it resumes, as it inevitably will, whilst preparing the ground for the confederal solution, which is now looming, and which the Russians now see as the eventual solution to the conflict.
The Putin Kerry talks are in fact far more likely to accelerate the resumption of the war than to end it.
Given that for the Ukrainian government retreat is impossible, the almost irresistible temptation, if it senses U.S. and Western support is weakening, will be to double down and renew the war so as to try to rally Western support by blaming Russia.
That after all is what the Ukrainian government did in January, when rumours of the diplomatic initiatives launched by the realists first began to circulate in Bloomberg and the New York Times.
There is no reason to think the pattern this time will be any different, in which case we are likely to see more fighting, probably in late May or June.
If that happens, Putin made it clear in an interview he gave to the German media - published just after the Brisbane summit - what will happen: Russia will not allow the two People’s Republics to be overrun, which means it will do whatever is necessary short of direct intervention to ensure a Ukrainian attack on the two People’s Republics is defeated.
By contrast, following Putin’s meetings in Merkel in February and now with Kerry, we can now say with a fair measure of certainty that the West will do nothing to help the Ukrainians, and any support the Ukrainians get from the West in such a situation will be only rhetorical.
That all but guarantees another Ukrainian defeat.
The sequel will most likely be more negotiations in Minsk, where the terms imposed on the Ukrainians will be harsher than those that were imposed on the Ukrainians in February, just as those terms were harsher than those imposed on the Ukrainians previously in September. In the process the Russians will move step by step closer to the confederal solution that is their objective.
Even that will not mean the end of the Ukrainian conflict. That will only come when the position of the present Ukrainian government finally becomes untenable so that it collapses. Even allowing for the increasingly disastrous economic situation, that point is probably still some way off.
However, following the talks with Kerry, it does increasingly seem that what we said following Putin’s talks with Merkel in February is true: the international part of this crisis - the part that affects Russia’s relations with the West - has passed its peak. Unless the hardliners in Washington manage to reassert themselves, we are likely to see more moves from now on towards a gradual de escalation.