Secretary of State John Kerry sets off for what he calls “a long overdue” trip to Russia on Monday, and Syria is likely to top the agenda.
But U.S.-Russian relations are frosty these days. The U.S. is imposing targeted sanctions on Russian human rights violators, while Moscow is preventing American families from adopting Russian children.
Kerry would be wise, though, not to dwell on these and other disputes, says Angela Stent, director of the center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University. She says the Obama administration needs to find a way to work with President Vladimir Putin on pressing global issues.
“We do know that Putin does have a pragmatic side to him and that he is willing to engage and make deals,” Stent says. “So I think the trick is to sort of find a way of doing that, of engaging Russia’s self interest, and not at least in the beginning being sidetracked by the Russian narrative of what’s wrong with the relationship.”
Russia has been at odds with the U.S. over the Arab uprisings, warning about the rise of Islamists, particularly now in Syria. Stent, who is writing a book about U.S.-Russia relations, says the two share concerns about Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, so that issue might provide an opening for Kerry.
“For the Russians it’s partly their own credibility, because they too have said that this is a red line for them,” she says. “The problem for both the U.S. and the Russians is, as president Obama has said, to figure out exactly what kind of weapons were used and who used them.”
Stent says the odds are not great for Kerry as he tries to reach common ground with Russia on Syria. Celeste Wallander of American University agrees this will be a hard sell, but says Russia’s position has been evolving.
“What we’ve seen in the last two years is a substantial re-evaluation of the Assad regime in Russian policy; more skepticism [and] more concern,” Wallander says. “What we haven’t seen is a change in Russian views on the issue of sovereignty and the necessity for a U.N. Security Council resolution, and I think that is the much harder question for the secretary’s trip.”
Wallander, a former Pentagon official, says Kerry is likely to talk to Russia about what sort of role it can play in a post-Assad Syria.
“The Russian leadership is driven more by what they don’t want rather than what they do want,” she says. “I don’t think they have a clear idea of what kind of outcome they would be willing to work towards, so that’s a hard conversation to have.”
It’s a conversation former U.S. ambassador to Russia James Collins had in Moscow recently, when he and other former U.S. and Russian ambassadors met with Kremlin officials.
“They are very concerned, and indeed worried, that whatever we may hope, the people who are just as likely to prevail if the Assad system disappears will be the crazies and the radicals,” Collins says.
Collins says like the U.S., Russia doesn’t want to see Syria come apart. But Washington and Moscow haven’t found a way to work together to promote peace talks among Syria’s rival factions.
“Basically, you’ve just got to get a negotiation started,” he says. “Right now all they are doing is killing each other. There is not the same energy being put into discussions about how do you bring about a negotiation, as there are on what can you do to the other guy to give him some advantage.”
Syria, however, shouldn’t be the only issue on Kerry’s plate, says Collins. The U.S. and Russia both seem to be trying to decide how to get over this frosty period. Collins says he sees a renewed focus on arms control and economic ties as president Obama prepares to meet Vladimir Putin this summer.