The U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry paid an official visit to Sochi on May 12, 2015. This was his first trip to Russia since the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis in November 2013. He held discussions with both President Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The Kremlin’s press release stated that ‘all issues on the international agenda’ were deliberated upon while Russian officials described the talks as ‘extremely positive’. The visit has been followed by a series of meetings between officials of the two countries. These developments have raised the prospects of a thaw in Russia-U.S. ties, especially when their engagement can help resolve pressing global issues. However, one needs to delve deeper into their core differences before deciphering whether this is a rapprochement, reset or calculated shifting of strategies.
It can be argued that the Ukrainian crisis is the culmination of fundamental differences between Russia and the West over Moscow’s status as an equal partner on the global stage. NATO’s eastward expansion and Western economic sanctions were seen as an attempt to isolate and undermine Russia’s legitimate interests. This influenced Moscow’s attempts to create a more representative world order that would safeguard its core interests. As a result, strengthening ties with countries that follow an independent policy has become an important principle of Russia’s foreign policy. Therefore, in many ways the existing standoff is about the need to preserve or establish a new world order depending upon which side of the US-Russia divide one is on.
In fact, not much has changed in the recent past to bring about a rapprochement. NATO has persisted with its overtures towards Georgia and Moldova, while the U.S. has started training the Ukrainian troops. The G7 statements on Russia indicate no letting up of Western sanctions even though they have failed to bring about a notable shift in the Kremlin’s policy on Ukraine. Russia retains the economic, military and cultural leverages to influence developments in its neighbourhood. The implementation of the Minsk II ceasefire agreement, set as the benchmark for improving Russia-West ties will also be difficult to enforce. The accord is riddled with too many complexities, especially on the need for Ukraine to grant political concessions, for it to be implemented in totality. After having raised the stakes so high any concessions, either by Russia or the U.S., will be detrimental not only to their domestic but also global credibility. At stake is the evolving world order and a compromise on core issues appears unlikely in the near future.
Contours of Russia-U.S. engagement
It appears that Kerry’s visit was designed at re-establishing a dialogue between Moscow and Washington. Realpolitik seems to have playeda part in this calculated outreach. In scenes reminiscent of the Cold War era, their heightened military postures reveal the risk of tensions snowballing into a major confrontation. This is a gamble that neither side appears inclined to take. Therefore, the current dialogue can be seen as a tactical approach aimed at not just reducing the risks but also exploring a way forward.
While Ukraine continues to cast a shadow on their engagement yet there is a growing mutual realization to stabilise the volatile environment. However, their reasons for doing so are very different. For Russia, the health of its economy appears to be the main concern. Escalation of tensions is likely to lead to additional Western sanctions that will jeopardise its nascent economic recovery. Despite all the talk of Russian resilience, a prolonged economic slump can have domestic political repercussions. The likely thinking is about letting the economy recover while giving the Minsk agreement a chance to be implemented. Russia can fall back on the strategic leverages that it has in Ukraine if its core interests continue to be disregarded.
For the U.S., a stable environment in Ukraine provides an opportunity to rebuild the country without the threat of an imminent military confrontation with Russia. The challenges are many, including the need to balance Kiev’s looming economic crisis with heightened aspirations of its citizens from the revolution. This will be a litmus test of the West’s ability to provide Ukraine with an alternative economic and political model. The odds also remain heavily stacked against the U.S. if hostilities break out since Moscow retains ‘escalation dominance’1 in the region. Therefore, a stable environment can be justified on the grounds of forcing a Russian retreat from potential territorial incursions including the Novorossiya project. The crisis has already fulfilled some key U.S. geo-political objectives. This includes reinforcing NATO’s relevance and strengthening the U.S. leadership in the alliance.
Publicly, both sides have stressed on the need to implement the Minsk II agreements. However, this does not reflect a shifting of their positions. Preserving Ukraine’s neutral status remains Moscow’s fundamental objective while the U.S. policy seems to focus on containing Russia in its neighbourhood. What has changed is their desire to manage the conflict and a ‘cold peace’ appears to be the blueprint for dealing with the Ukrainian conundrum. This is likely to see them freeze the conflict while they explore the nuances of a stable environment.
Interestingly, the recent Russia-U.S. meetings on Ukraine took place in the absence of European leaders who till now were the key Western negotiators with Moscow. This suggests a bigger involvement of the U.S. in Ukrainian discussions, notwithstanding the posturing by Barak Obama during the last G7 meeting.
The Ukrainian standoff has strengthened Beijing’s leverages vis-à-vis both Moscow and Washington. This could also have influenced the Russia-U.S. engagement. The Kremlin has been driven to strengthen ties with China in order to manage the Western geopolitical pressure. This involves accommodating Chinese interests even in its core geo-political and strategic sectors. Nevertheless, there exist Russian apprehensions of aligning too closely with China. On the other hand, a strong and rising China with the full backing of Russia is not in America’s interests either.
Common Russian-American Interests
A view gaining traction in both Russia and the U.S. is the need to engage each other in areas of mutual interests. The emergence of the Islamic State has security implications for both the countries. While they may have different approaches towards it, yet a dialogue can help identify each other’s positions and policies. Similarly, concerns exist over radicals being a part of any transition process in Syria. While it is unlikely that the two countries will agree on a common strategy, yet a dialogue is a better bet than stoic silence.
Likewise, developments in Iran remain relevant for both of them. At a time when the U.S. led Iranian nuclear negotiations are delicately poised, having Russia on board is useful. It can be argued that an American reconciliation with Iran inherently reduces Russia’s influence in the region. Moscow can also view the deal as a zero sum game vis-à-vis the U.S. It can thereby attempt to disrupt the process. It is a different matter altogether that with the Iranians showing a resolve to conclude the deal, any Russian ploy may prove counter-productive for the Kremlin. On the other hand, playing a constructive role can strengthen Russia’s claims to be a pole in global affairs. It will also nullify the perception of its isolation on the global stage.
Consequently, the new contours of a Russia-U.S. engagement appear to be shaping up. Managing tensions through dialogue forms the nucleus of this approach. It also involves engaging each other in areas of mutual concern. There is a growing realization in the U.S. that treating Russia as an adversary can be counter-productive. If pushed to the wall, Russia can encourage the rebels to step up hostilities with the aim of establishing a land corridor from the rebel held Donetsk region to Crimea. Such a scenario will offer difficult choices for the West which it would like to avoid for the sake of its own credibility. However, a Russia-U.S. rapprochement in the fundamental sense does not appear to be on the cards. There exists deep mutual distrust and it is unlikely that the two countries can resolve their core differences in the near future. As a result, a prolonged period of ‘cold peace’ and intensified rhetoric is on the cards. This was reinforced by the controversy over Russia’s bid to host the soccer World Cup in 2018 and the G7 statements on Russia during the recent summit meeting held in Germany.
1. ‘Escalation dominance’ involves controlling the pace of a military escalation. Russia retains the ‘escalation dominance’ in Ukraine due to geographical, cultural, political and military leverages. On the other hand, geography does not favour the U.S. for a full-fledged military involvement in Ukraine since it is a proverbial continent away. Allison and Simes "Russia and America: Stumbling to War”, The National Interest, April 20, 2015 at http://nationalinterest.org/feature/russia-america-stumbling-war-12662, (Accessed on June 02, 2015).