U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will arrive in Moscow on Tuesday to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss a number of critical issues. Of all the concerns though, the situation in Syria seems to be the most pressing. The crisis could provide an opportunity for Russia and the United States to ease their historically tense relations.
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Over the weekend, the Israeli air force reportedly carried out missile attacks against weapons facilities in Syria in an attempt to prevent chemical weapons from falling into the hands of Hezbollah or of jihadists who could later use them to threaten Israel. Also over the weekend, U.N. official on Syria Carla Del Ponte said the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria had heard testimony indicating that Syrian rebels have used chemical weapons in limited amounts in the country, but evidence is still lacking to support earlier claims that the regime has also used these weapons.
The U.N. statement has put the United States in a very difficult position: It is unable to distinguish the "good" guys from the "bad" simply by the use of chemical weapons, but the threat of chemical weapons proliferation continues to loom. The United States has no good options in Syria, but it could benefit from collaboration with Russia — which still has a strong relationship with Syrian President Bashar al Assad's clan — as it tries to mitigate the chemical weapons threat. At first, it seemed that Kerry's visit to Moscow could be a way to warm up Russian-U.S. relations since Kerry will meet with Putin, not just with his counterpart, Russian Foregin Minister Sergei Lavrov. This is a rare break in diplomatic protocol. The unusual meeting has created a belief in the media that the United States could be attempting a serious breakthrough in getting the Russians on board with a plan for Syria.
But it seems that the United States is not yet ready to strike a grand bargain with the Kremlin. While in Moscow, Kerry will be holding meetings with human rights nongovernmental organizations in Russia, many of which happen to also be anti-government NGOs, a particularly sensitive issue for the Kremlin. The Russian government has been struggling against anti-Kremlin sentiment that has been rising since the end of 2011 and that spiked in 2012 after the parliamentary and presidential elections. Protesters, who at times numbered in the hundreds of thousands, wanted a new parliamentary election and for Putin not to take a third term. Leading the protest efforts were many NGOs, such as Golos.
At the time, the Kremlin accused the United States of funding the NGOs' efforts against the Kremlin, even leaking documents of alleged U.S. Department of State support for the NGOs. After Kerry's predecessor, Hillary Clinton, visited Moscow in 2012 and met with the NGOs, the Kremlin made it clear that U.S. support for the anti-government groups was a threat to the Kremlin. Since then, the Russian government has passed a series of laws against NGOs operating in Russia, including one law that states that any NGO that receives foreign funding must declare itself a "foreign agent," something many NGOs and the U.S. government have protested. So it is peculiar for Kerry to meet with the NGOs (including Golos) at a time when the United States faces increased pressure to foster a working relationship with Russia, especially regarding Syria.
The U.S. meetings with NGOs in Russia could mean three things. First, perhaps Washington does not feel as much pressure to act on Syria (or at least act with the Russians on Syria) as it seems. Second, Kerry feels domestic pressure to continue pushing Putin on the issue of NGOs, so he may be playing politics in Russia (and for a U.S. audience), while assuring the Kremlin that the United States is not still funding the anti-government movement in Russia. This is a tough sell, as the Russian public will surely take Kerry's meeting with the NGOs as a sign of American support.
Third, U.S. support for NGOs is one of the last and most powerful cards that Washington has to influence Russia. Once relinquished, there is little the United States could do to persuade Russia to be of assistance on a number of issues. This could be the United States waving that card in front of the Kremlin as a reminder of the influence the United States still has, something the Kremlin is well aware of despite Kerry's meeting with Putin. Although there are many things for the United States and Russia to discuss, and while meetings between top officials are frequent, this particular meeting, given the situation in Syria, could present a unique opportunity for Washington and Moscow to try to shift their relations.