The May 9 Red Army parade to celebrate the liberation of Europe from Nazi Germany took place with the Red Army, but without the liberated Europeans. A day after Chinese leader Xi Jinping, a symbol of the new Eastern orientation of Russian politics, watched the Victory Day parade from a guest podium on Red Square, German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Moscow. The following day, rather unexpectedly, Secretary of State John Kerry landed in Sochi to meet with President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

John Kerry was last in Russia two years ago. He is the highest-ranking American official to travel to Russia since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis. Last year, Putin shook hands quickly with his American counterpart in Normandy at the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, and in Brisbane at the G-20 summit to prove to Russians that nothing was wrong and that Russia was still engaged with the West. But these superficial gestures cannot be compared to last week’s four-hour meeting in Sochi, during which not only was Ukraine “thoroughly discussed,” but Syria, Iran, Libya, and even Yemen were topics of conversation as well.

Kerry spoke at length with Lavrov, and at the end of the conversation he gave the foreign minister a Victory Day t-shirt—a reference to the joint celebration that didn't happen. In return, Lavrov gave Kerry baskets of tomatoes and potatoes, as if to say: Columbus went to America for a reason—now we have something with which we can respond to European sanctions. Kerry unexpectedly made a generous and unprompted statement about the sanctions of his own, saying, “If Minsk is fully implemented, it is clear the U.S. and EU sanctions will begin to be rolled back.”

The Countdown

One of the Americans responsible for Washington’s relations with Moscow told me during the May holidays that there would soon be changes to this relationship. The changes arrived by special flight in Sochi on May 11 at 10:40 a.m. Moscow time.

Alexander Baunov
Baunov is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center and editor in chief of
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American foreign policy officials and experts I spoke with all said more or less the same thing: contact with Russian officials has been almost completely cut off since last spring. This is very troubling to them. (“Cut off, but by whom?” is the sarcastic retort offered by Russian diplomats.) Kerry was the only American official who continued talking to his Russian colleague by phone. Last week, he came in person, but what for?

In the United States, there is a strong feeling that an attempt must be made to break the impasse. President Obama is thinking about his place in history, as is President Putin. The Russian President found his answer in Crimea; although Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize at the beginning of his presidency and unfroze relations with Iran and Cuba, he does not want to leave office in the midst of a new Cold War with an old adversary. To do so would be for the forward-looking president of hope to send the country into the past. He does not want to leave the new Cold War to be unfrozen by his colleague and potential successor, Hillary Clinton, who has already pressed the “reset” button once and is unlikely to do so a second time. 

Obama has little time. In six months, electoral politics rather than practical considerations will begin to determine American foreign policy. During the 2016 campaigns, the overriding concern for candidates will be to not look weaker than their opponents. The important thing will be not what Obama thinks is right, but what must be done for his fellow Democrats to win the election.

And what must be done is obvious enough. There is no unified bloc of Russian voters in the U.S. to appease: in contrast with the Greek, Polish, and Armenian diasporas, the Russian-speaking population in the U.S. is scattered and not of a patriotic mindset (as is typical of émigrés from a large nation). This means that there are no domestic political reasons to speak well of Russia or to make overtures towards it. In fact, there are reasons to do exactly the opposite. Russia is a traditional adversary, an old evil, which has confirmed its reputation with its renewed aggression. In speaking out against Russia, a candidate is seen to be automatically fighting for good. This was the case before the Ukraine crisis, and is even more so now. 

But Putin has a different clock. The hands on his clock turn slowly, while the hands on Obama’s turn quickly; Obama is leaving, Putin is staying. At times, it seems as if Putin simply wants to outlast the American president, with whom he has not been able to establish good relations. (After all, he has already outlasted many other foreign leaders.) Americans warn that things will be more difficult for Russia with Hillary, and even more so with a Republican president. Obama has been the main person responsible for preventing arms from being sent to Ukraine. But this doesn’t scare Russia. In Putin’s personal honor code, an honest foe is better than one who wears a mask. When people try to speak privately with Putin about politics using the language of values—as Obama often does—Putin gets angry.  He considers this a smokescreen, a lie that disguises the expansion of the West’s sphere of influence, and a part of a broader attempt to change regimes, including his own. A straightforward, cynical conversation is preferable to the Russian leader. 

With the clock ticking, Kerry perhaps tried to convince Putin to make use of the time remaining during his trip to Sochi.

The Detector Is Lying

Kerry’s most practical task on Sochi was to determine whether the peace in eastern Ukraine will hold or if there will be a summer offensive, which many fear. After all, the militants in the Donbas constantly assert that they are dissatisfied with the current ceasefire line. If they attempt to advance and Russia backs them up, there won’t be any renewing of relations. Rather, there will be new, far more severe sanctions. Perhaps coincidentally, on the day Kerry arrived in Sochi, renewed fighting was reported in the Donbas.

Putin is not unhappy with the current ceasefire line. For various reasons, he is not prepared to go further. What would one more city or town give him? What would he gain by adding Mariupol to Donetsk, or Schastye to Lugansk? But the rebels do need them, and Putin cannot let them lose. If, contradicting Russian political strategists’ instructions, the militants become tangled up in battle and are forced to retreat, Russia will intervene. And it will intervene if the Ukrainian government suddenly, for whatever reason, sets out to reconquer the Donbas. This is understood in Europe and the United States, where one hears over and over that for Ukraine, there is no military solution to the crisis in the east. In Sochi, Kerry warned the Ukrainians: don’t even think about reclaiming lost territory by force. Undoubtedly, one of the reasons for Kerry’s trip was to make certain that Russia is serious about peace in Ukraine, since any attempt to renew relations would be absurd and incongruous otherwise. 

Another question that NATO’s Council of Foreign Ministers, for example, might like to know the answer to is this: is Ukraine a special case, or might other post-Soviet regions fall victim to Russian revanchism? There is much concern in the United States about the Baltic countries. At first glance, it’s not clear why; after all, these states are members of the EU and NATO. As retired U.S. Brigadier General Kevin Ryan said at a meeting at the Carnegie Moscow Center last month, paraphrasing Aleksandr Tvardovsky’s classic poem Vasily Tyorkin, Crimea is a small to-do, Ukraine is a medium to-do, but the Baltics would be a big to-do. He was surprised to hear his Russian colleagues tell him that “the conditions that exist in Ukraine exist in part in the Baltic states as well.” 

Meanwhile, Putin has set about—as the newspapers put it—“justifying the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.” The logic behind the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is reminiscent of Putin’s logic today. What others perceived as Soviet aggression seemed like defense to Stalin. This is how Putin thinks about his actions in Ukraine. And such is Russia’s distinctive conception of its national security: as Strobe Talbott recently wrote, Russia gains a sense of its own security only when its neighbors lose theirs.

This conception of defense arises from a history of Western invasions, but has not been proven to be successful as a practical policy. It is unknown whether Finland would have taken part in World War II and blockaded Leningrad from the north if, a year earlier, the USSR had not attempted to cement its own security at Finland’s expense. Or, suppose Stalin had attempted to improve the USSR’s security before the war by taking over Turkish territories. Would Turkey have remained neutral? 

Most people in the world believe that Russia is acting as an aggressor in Ukraine, but Putin and many in Russia think that Russia is acting in its own defense. Putin is a conservative politician whose actions are more defensive than offensive in nature. And consequently, it is more or less clear why Ukraine has come under siege, while the Baltic States have not. In Ukraine, Putin is defending something that belongs to him, which, from his point of view, hasn’t yet been lost. The Baltic States, on the other hand, have already been lost: to fight there would be to attack and to take what belongs to someone else. 

Finally, Kerry traveled to Sochi to understand whether Putin could be trusted, whether he was ready to talk honestly. Without a basic level of trust, it would be impossible to even think about a meeting at a higher level. Observers in the West are shocked that Putin has broken the most fundamental rule of the post-World War II (a war that is so central to Putin and Putinism) order: do not annex land by force or demand the reunification of ethnic groups. Further, they are stunned that he has been brash enough to use rhetoric from his own propaganda in confidential, high-level meetings. In other words, that he has tried to fool his Western colleagues.

Putin no doubt sees this as a response to his interlocutors’ insufficient openness. He does not like it when, rather than speaking honestly and cynically, people express lofty, value-laden ideas to him. Western politicians, for their part, don’t like it when, instead of hearing honest talk from Putin and his officials, they hear propagandistic lines about downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and Russian military aid to eastern Ukraine. At the same time, what else could someone in Putin’s position say? 

Furthermore, Western diplomats and experts are keenly aware of how Kremlin propaganda lies to the Russian people and attacks the West and even Russian citizens. This worries them: Russia can’t re-establish relations with a country it is openly vilifying. On the day of Kerry’s visit, state TV channels again broadcast the names of “enemies” who had written something that did not conform to official rhetoric about the Victory Day celebration. Russia, of course, sees this as a response to the West’s information war. 

The rules of conduct and decency have been violated. Many in Russia believe that they were violated in response to the West’s denunciation of Putin— a duly elected president who might happen to be incompetent and corrupt—as a dictator. A compromise co-signed by Western officials after large-scale violence erupted between police and protesters in Kyiv during the EuroMaidan Revolution was disregarded after a few short hours without any explanatory remarks, when it became clear that the Western-backed opposition was winning. In Russia, this was understood to mean that rules and agreements no longer exist, and everyone can do what they want. Now that there is interest in re-establishing contacts, rules too must be re-established, such that both sides honor agreements, and such that it again becomes indecent to lie in confidential conversation.

Respect Without Fear

In Eastern Europe these days, there is an extreme view of the world that regards a new Cold War with Russia as something natural and perhaps even desirable: the more isolated Russia is, the safer everyone else is. But American political leaders still think otherwise. As it attempts to step back from the brink of a new Cold War, however, the West will have to make sure that Putin does not interpret backtracking as a reward for bad behavior.

After all, one of the main motivations behind Russia’s foreign policy is the desire to be taken seriously. The Russian leadership and the Russian people experienced a decline in global significance in an unexpectedly acute manner after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As one American diplomat put it, in the 1990s, Russia stopped being a priority for the United States because it stopped being a threat. This would appear to be a good thing. But in Russia, people felt that their country had become one that, if it disagreed, did not need to be persuaded because it could be ignored. They came to the conclusion that in order to restore Russia’s significance, it was necessary to make Russia a threat again. This, then, is the task for Western diplomacy: to convince Russia that it can be important without being a threat. This is a matter not for one visit, but for an entire foreign policy.

This publication originally appeared in Russian.

  • Alexander Baunov