John Kerry Meets Putin to Discuss Syria, Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) speaks with US Secretary of State John Kerry during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on December 15, 2015
AFP/Sergei Kappukhin

Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Moscow on Wednesday for meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, with the future of Syria high on the agenda.

The Christian Science Monitor frames Syria as the key issue in a broader discussion about relations between the United States and Russia, proposing that Russia’s successful military intervention in Syria “appears to have changed the conversation, and established that the road to any political settlement runs through Moscow.”

At the time of President Obama’s re-election, he was talking about the urgency of regime change in Syria, and made a desultory effort to achieve it through force of arms, after his careless “red line” against chemical weapons was violated.

Now Putin is clearly ascendant over the Obama Administration, with its own strategic objectives locked down, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad secure in power for the foreseeable future, most of Obama’s allies in the Syrian revolution decimated, and the U.S. increasingly forced to see things Russia’s way. Russian credibility in the region is secure, while America’s lies in tatters. When the Syrian civil war is wrapped up, the resolution will be far closer to Putin’s vision from three or four years ago than Obama’s.

If the spirit of “confrontation” between the U.S. and Russia over Syria is ending, it is most definitely on Putin’s terms, not President Obama’s. Russia in Global Affairs editor Fyodor Lukyanov is not wrong when he says the Obama White House “has been compelled to work with Moscow in framing a Syria solution.”

“What we see from the Syrian example is that the US and Russia remain the only two countries that are able accomplish anything,” said Lukyanov. “There are many others with their hands in the Syria crisis. But it was the growing alignment of interests between Moscow and Washington that brought about a truce, and compelled various parties to come to the bargaining table in Geneva. No one else, or any combination of other powers, could have done that. This is a key lesson that needs to sink in.”

“The pullout [from Syria] reminds us that Putin is a good chess player. Though he may not be a great strategist, he does know when and how to move,” added Viktor Kremeniuk of Moscow’s Institute of USA-Canada Studies. “It undercuts the idea that Russia is running wild in the world, shows that our goals can be limited and reasonable, while putting the ball in the U.S.’s court to respond in kind.”

Lukyanov goes on to say that Russia is not necessarily determined to keep Assad on the Syrian throne at all costs, although officially Russia and Iran have insisted that neither “terrorist” rebels nor Western powers should keep Assad off the ballot, if Syrians want to keep “voting” for him.

Russia’s goal is to protect their interests in Syria, including their naval facility in Tartus. (Warm-water naval ports play an outsized role in all Russian foreign policy decisions.) Staying behind Assad made a great deal of sense, when so many undesirable outcomes could have resulted from the Libya-style chaos after his premature fall. Assad’s future is more negotiable now, but the negotiations will still be favorable to Moscow, and if Assad leaves Damascus at some point down the road, he most likely won’t be run out of town on a rail.

For Reuters alleges Kerry will be “pressing” Putin on Syria, and that he is determined to “get down to brass tacks.”

“The Secretary would like to now really hear where President Putin is in his thinking… on a political transition,” Reuters quotes an unnamed State Department official saying, even though Russia firmly restates its position that “only the Syrian people can decide [Assad’s] fate at the ballot box” and dismissing talk of “regime change” in the very same article.

“Obviously what we are looking for, and what we have been looking for, is how we are going to transition Syria away from Assad’s leadership,” droned the State Department official.

Russia, which has lately been threatening unilateral military action against cease-fire violators unless the United States gets its Syrian allies under control, knows it can get a deal with a desperate Obama while giving up very little in return.

Another issue Kerry will discuss with the Russians is Ukraine. For a preview of how that may go, the Wall Street Journal reports: “In a gesture of indifference toward U.S. opinion, a Russian court Tuesday sentenced a Ukrainian pilot, Nadya Savchenko, to 22 years in prison after convicting her of murder for military operations against rebels over eastern Ukraine where two Russian journalists were killed.”