John Kerry in Russia

Q1: Why is Secretary Kerry going to Russia? Why now?

A1: Secretary Kerry is in Sochi for meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The impetus for the trip is reports of new chemical weapons (in this case, chlorine) attacks on civilians in Syria, but Kerry will be discussing a range of bilateral and regional issues, including the Iranian nuclear deal and the conflict in Ukraine with his Russian hosts.

Kerry is then traveling to Turkey for a NATO ministerial, which will provide an opportunity for him to brief allies on his meetings in Sochi. In one of the rare bright spots in the very tense U.S.-Russian relationship, the two countries have been working together to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile for the past two years. Their cooperation on this issue dates to the aftermath of a large scale chemical attack on Syrian civilians in August 2013, which dramatically escalated pressure on the United States to intervene militarily given President Obama’s remark that the use of chemical weapons would constitute a “red line” for Washington. Kerry did note, almost rhetorically, that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could avoid an imminent allied attack only if he gave up his entire chemical weapons stockpile—a remark Moscow seized on to propose an agreement for Syria to hand over its stockpile to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OCPW) for destruction.

Since the signing of a U.S.-Russian framework agreement in September 2013 in Geneva, Washington and Moscow have been working together to implement and verify the agreement. The apparent use of chlorine gas (not covered by the by the Geneva agreement) by Syrian military represents a new challenge for the U.S.-Russia deal, which Kerry will discuss in Sochi. They will also discuss the possibility of a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict, which has worsened dramatically in the past two years, with the rise of the Islamic State increasingly threatening both U.S. and Russian interests.

Q2: Does Putin's participation make a difference?

A2: While the Sochi meetings are unlikely to produce any major agreements on Syria or anything else, they are an important acknowledgment of the importance of the U.S.-Russian relationship, and the need for high-level engagement to advance shared priorities. Putin’s participation in the meetings is important.

For one, he has not met formally with any high-level U.S. officials in two years or so, since the cancellation of a planned summit meeting between Putin and Obama in September 2013. As head of state, he also outranks Kerry on a protocol level, which would matter less during a period of normal relations, but is significant now for signaling that Moscow is focused more on the substance of the conversation than the optics.

Putin’s role in decision making has become increasingly dominant over the past few years, and getting any kind of agreement, on Syria or otherwise, to stick is going to require his buy-in. Moreover, with the worsening of U.S.-Russian relations and the mobilization of anti-Americanism for domestic ends inside Russia, Putin has little to gain politically from a meeting with Kerry right now. That Putin is willing to take this meeting testifies to the importance of Moscow attaches to events in Syria, and, presumably, a recognition that the United States and Russia are condemned to work together to find solutions to issues like the Syrian conflict, regardless of where their overall relationship is.

Q3: What about Ukraine?

A3: It’s little secret that U.S.-Russian relations have worsened substantially since the fall of 2013, largely because of the crisis in Ukraine, which at times has resembled a U.S.-Russia proxy conflict. The Minsk-II ceasefire agreement, signed in February 2015 by the Russian, Ukrainian, French, and German leaders, continues teetering, with reports of continued shelling and arms buildups on the part of the pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and European sanctions imposed on Russia over its involvement in Ukraine remain in place, exacerbating what was already a serious economic downturn in Russia. Washington and Moscow remain far apart regarding the ultimate settlement of the conflict, with fundamental disagreements on issues ranging from Ukraine’s relationship with NATO and the EU, measures to de-centralize the Ukrainian state, energy, Ukraine’s debts, and other issues.

While Kerry’s meetings are unlikely to produce any breakthroughs on Ukraine, they are important as a means of keeping lines of communication open. With tensions on the ground still high and concerns mounting about the possibility of escalation, open communication is vital. Much of the conversation between Washington and Moscow on this issue has taken place in public, often with more heat than light.

The Sochi meetings will provide an avenue to discuss possible avenues toward a diplomatic agreement, which at the end of the day is the only way to end the crisis, but which would also likely require a more prominent U.S. role than we have seen so far.


Jeffrey Mankoff is deputy director and fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.

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Jeffrey Mankoff
Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program