The White House on Tuesday dispatched U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to the Black Sea resort town of Sochi for a "frank" discussion with Russian leaders. Not only did both Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian President Vladimir Putin grant him a top-level audience, but Putin also personally hosted Kerry for talks in his Sochi palace, a monstrosity of a building ensconced in the heavily wooded countryside, where only the most sensitive and serious conversations with the Russian leader are entertained.
Obviously, the United States would not have proposed such a meeting without a good reason. Little clarity could be gleaned from media leaks that said the meeting focused vaguely on Ukraine, Syrian chemical weapons and the Iran talks. Still, the Russians were evidently quite pleased with the results of the discussion. After giving his counterpart gifts of Victory Day apparel and baskets of produce, Lavrov described his meeting with Kerry as "wonderful," while Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the U.S.-Russia communication as "extremely positive." Something was said in that meeting that has grabbed Moscow's attention.
When we examine what Russia would want out of such a discussion, the conversation certainly would not center on peripheral issues such as the Iran nuclear talks or the Syrian civil war. For Russia, the priority — the obsession even — is Ukraine and the steps the United States is taking to expand its military footprint in Russia's backyard. Putin does not like the idea of American soldiers holding exercises all along the Russian periphery one bit. He especially does not like the idea of the United States leaving valuable military equipment and trainers behind for the frontline states to bolster their defenses against Russia and, more important, create a potential tripwire for the United States to intervene directly.
At the same time, sanctions on Russia may not be crippling, but they are certainly hurting the Russian people and a number of powerful figures within the Kremlin whom Putin needs to manage. It is reasonable to assume that Putin would push for an easing of sanctions in such conversations to restore confidence in the Russian economy. Kerry did mention that together the United States and Russia would work on the cease-fire in Ukraine and that then the United States would consider easing sanctions if the Minsk agreement is fully implemented. Ultimately, however, any negotiation with Washington at this stage comes down to how much goodwill the United States is willing to show in its Russia containment strategy.
But what would the United States get in return? The United States, unlike Russia, has options. It can always increase its military involvement in the Russian periphery through weapons transfers, defense agreements, financial assistance for strategic energy initiatives and so on. Russia, on the other hand, cannot afford to see its economy slide deeper into crisis, lacks the funds to realize many of its strategic projects and would have to throw most of its military weight behind any scenario that entails anchoring the Russian presence in Ukraine on the Dnieper River. Even a more modest military operation into Ukrainian-held territories, such as the city of Mariupol, would come with a heavy financial and military cost. In other words, the United States has Russia in a containable situation, with the option to turn the dial up or down as the situation warrants.
Given its weak position and the broad set of options before the United States, Moscow would likely distrust a big show of good faith from Washington. Nor would it expect Washington to follow through with thornier points of the Minsk agreement, which could risk turning the military balance back in favor of the pro-Western government in Kiev after Russian forces withdrew from eastern Ukraine. The best Russia can hope for is U.S. backing for local elections and thus autonomy for eastern Ukraine and potentially a more flexible interpretation by the United States on how Russian forces are classified in eastern Ukraine.
And as a report by slain Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov recently alleged, many Russian soldiers resigned from the Russian military and Chechnya's interior forces prior to "volunteering" to fight in eastern Ukraine. Germany has already signaled that it wants to de-escalate sanctions pressure on Russia in due time, even as Berlin maintains that Russia must fully implement the Minsk agreement. But so far there is little indication out of Washington that the United States is prepared to give Russia economic relief, especially if it looks like a divided Europe could go soft and allow sanctions to expire at the end of this year.
If the United States is unlikely to pull back in Russia's periphery and Russia is unlikely to make concessions on Ukraine, then there may be issues of common interest in the Middle East that were worth discussing in Sochi. At the same time the United States is close to clinching a nuclear deal with Iran, Washington is trying to convince Sunni powers in the region that it is committed to their security and will back them in their battles, including a battle against Iran and Russia's ally in Damascus, Syrian President Bashar al Assad. In the lead-up to this week's Camp David summit, the United States has not hid the fact that it has been working closely with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar in forging the rebel coalition that is waging offensives in both the north and south of Syria.
But the United States still has to preserve its fledgling normalization with Iran. And Gulf Arab concerns aside, the U.S. administration is not necessarily comfortable with the idea of radical Islamists at the forefront of the Syrian battlefield filling a power vacuum in Damascus. There is room for compromise here. If Kerry's frank discussion in Russia included Washington limiting its involvement in the Syria fight, then Russia may also be willing to reconsider issues such as the sale of S-300s to Iran.
Notably, Wendy Sherman, who has been the chief U.S. negotiator in the Iran nuclear talks, accompanied Kerry on this trip. With the Iran negotiation coming down to the wire, the White House wants to ensure that Russia does not try to throw a wrench into these talks at the last minute and works cooperatively on issues when it comes to restructuring problematic Iranian nuclear sites, disposing of spent nuclear fuel from Iran and easing sanctions through the United Nations.
Iran and Syria are surely relevant in a discussion between Washington and Moscow, but a U.S. rapprochement with Iran effectively dilutes Russian leverage in the Middle East by design. So if the United States is worried about Damascus using chlorine as a weapon, then would not a discussion with Iran be just as effective, if not more so at this stage, than a conversation with Russia? Russia also has few means to derail a U.S. nuclear deal with Iran. Iran itself has publicly acknowledged that Russia's "oil for goods" barter arrangement to help Iran evade sanctions does not work. We cannot be sure yet what exactly Kerry said to entice Moscow. But peripheral cooperation on Middle East issues can only be part of the picture.