Ben Aris in Moscow -
Two high-level delegations to Russia from the US suggest that icy relations between the two sides may have begun to thaw a little.
US Secretary of State John Kerry travelled to Sochi to meet his counterpart Sergei Lavrov on May 12 in his first visit to Russia since the conflict in Ukraine began.
Kerry and Lavrov told journalists at the end of eight hours of talks that they saw “eye to eye” on the pressing need to put aside their differences, but still had “agreed to disagree”, in comments that analysts took to indicate a warmer tone than in previous meetings. Russian President Vladimir Putin then turned up and hosted Kerry for a further four hours in what was taken as another positive sign.
“We agreed that it is only possible to solve this dispute through comprehensive and full implementation of the peace plan,” Lavrov said, referring to the Minsk II agreement signed on February 12 in the Belarusian capital.
US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland followed Kerry's trip by meeting Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin on May 18, directly after two days of talks in Kyiv with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Nuland repeated the tough rhetoric that US sanctions on Russia cannot be lifted until all the terms Minsk II are met, but the tone was less abrasive. “Today’s consultations were very detailed, they were very pragmatic. In both meetings, we were talking about how we build on the conversation in Sochi, on all of the issues that were discussed between President Putin and Secretary Kerry,” Nuland said in a statement released at the end of her trip.
For his part Karasin said the discussions were “fruitful”, but also resisted the US push to join the so-called “Normandy” talks on Ukraine, which include representatives from Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France.
However, the tensions remain high. During Nuland's trip fighting at the Ukrainian town of Shyrokyne remained intense despite the ceasefire, which is seen as a staging post to the coastal town of Mariupol – a strategic town that if taken by the Russian-backed rebels would give Moscow a land bridge to the annexed territory of Crimea. The Ukrainian forces were reporting a few deaths every day throughout the Kerry-Nuland visits, highlighting that the Minsk II ceasefire is at best very shaky. “Minsk [II] is being violated on a daily basis on the western side of the Minsk line and that is what needs to stop. We need to stop all of those violations and get the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] into all of the hotspots,” Nuland said in answer to journalists' questions, referring to Europe’s main security-oriented intergovernmental organization.
Four new working groups have recently been established to work towards peace and Nuland said she had also discussed with the Russian side allowing the OSCE to monitor the whole Russia-Ukraine border and to inspect convoys crossing from Russia into the rebel-held territory during the May 18 meetings – something that Russia has so far resisted.
Nuland's comments on the OSCE may even represent a concession by Washington. “Though the Minsk agreements envision Ukraine retaking control of its border with Russia, in both Kiev and Moscow Nuland merely spoke about the necessity for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to have a presence on the border and the ability to inspect cargo moving into Ukraine,” says George Friedman of consultants Stratfor.
One of the motives for Washington's search for compromise is the raft of international problems the US is facing where Russia can play a constructive role. Kerry and Lavrov admitted that in addition to Ukraine they also discussed the civil war in Syria, the recent violence in Yemen, the political chaos in Libya and Russia's overtures to Iran. The situation in the Middle East is spinning out of control, but Russia remains good relations with many of the regimes the US is facing there. “Of course, [Kerry's visit to Sochi] means, first of all, that attempts to isolate Russia have failed. The issues that were raised by Kerry in Sochi were not only regarding Ukraine, but also Syria, Yemen and many others, the set of these questions suggests that it is very difficult to solve them without Russia,” Lavrov told the press after the meeting.
The rising importance of these other talks was highlighted by the less well reported parallel visit to Moscow during Nuland's trip of Daniel Rubinstein, the US special envoy for Syria, who held parallel talks with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov on that conflict and the threat posed by Islamic State to the region.
Another motive for the flurry of US activity is an attempt to take back the initiative in the Ukraine conflict resolution. German Chancellor Angela Merkel very publicly went to Washington ahead of the Minsk I summit last year, but seemed to break with the US during the summit itself, which was a German endeavour and Washington was remarkably quiet in the aftermath. Ever since then, Merkel has been front and centre in all the negotiations (despite dragging French President Francois Hollande along to some meetings to give the negotiations a veneer of European cooperation). Nuland went out of her way to stress that the current diplomatic effort is being coordinated with the Normandy group of European powers. “The United States' role here is to support the full implementation of Minsk. We are doing this in lockstep with ... our colleagues in the EU, with Germany and France ... and Ukraine,” Nuland said.
However, no one is buying it, as the US remains excluded from the Normandy group and cracks in the trans-Atlantic alliance are appearing. “For the past year and a half, Germany and France have been at the forefront of Western negotiations with Russia,” says Friedman. “However, differences between the German and US views of events in eastern Ukraine and interpretations of the Minsk agreement have come to the fore. Germany has taken a more favourable view of progress in implementing the Minsk agreement, while the United States has maintained a hard line, emphasizing continued active Russian military support for the separatist forces.”
These problems come on top of deep divisions within the EU itself over how to deal with Russia. Countries like Poland and the Baltic states have taken a hard line, while Hungary, Czech Republic, Italy, Bulgaria and Spain are all leaning towards bringing sanctions to an end this year. Putin has been travelling the region handing out loans, cheap gas and pipeline deals to anyone who will back him. Greece was the latest to experience Russian largesse, but on May 19 surprised by caving into Brussels pressure and agreed to back extending sanctions to the end of this year. “Germany is having an increasingly difficult time maintaining a hard line in dealing with Russia,” Friedman said in a note. “Nonetheless, Germany would rather remain at the forefront of the negotiations with Russia and avoid a scenario in which the United States forces Russia into a confrontation that Berlin does not want.”
Putin must be gleeful at the US blundering into the negotiations again, because it presents him with an opportunity to not only play EU members off each other, but now to play Washington off against Brussels. However, the Kremlin also wants to win some key concessions from Washington, with a commitment not to supply Kyiv with weapons at the top of the list. A small contingent of US military trainers arrived in Ukraine in May charged with helping to bring the militias into the regular army, but the significance of US troops on Ukrainian soil was much larger.
Another Kremlin demand is to curb Nato activity on Russia's borders. While the Kremlin has been aggressively flying sorties along the European borders, Nato has responded by talking about setting up six new forward staging units in the Baltics, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, as well as launching its own exercises.
“In late March and early April, the US Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) held an exercise in Estonia, during which US F-16s destroyed ground targets in an Estonian firing range. Around the same time the Americans held a drill with the Swedish and Finnish Air Forces over the Baltic Sea. The United States has been playing a leading role in the process of strengthening NATO’s presence in the Baltic states,” Piotr Szymański of the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) said in a note in May. “Comparing NATO ‘s military presence in the Baltic states before and after the outbreak of the Russian intervention in Ukraine, it is clear that NATO has stepped up its engagement considerably.”
There is a lot of work still to do, but Ukrainian analysts were buoyed by the flurry of Washington activity and believe the threat of an escalation in the violence has receded as a result. “That the Russians view the talks as positive is a good sign for the near term. In our view, it means that the conflict in Donbas will remain frozen at its current stage,” says Zenon Zawada, an analyst with Concord Capital in Kyiv. “It also means that an arrangement has been reached that eliminates the need for the US to deliver military hardware to defend the port city of Mariupol, which is near the border of the separatist-occupied territory. That some kind of agreement exists is apparent from the fact that the separatists have refrained from aggressive actions in Mariupol, limiting the fighting to control surrounding villages.”
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