The Interpreter

A special project of Institute of Modern Russia
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visits Moscow. [RIA Novosti/Mikhail Klimentyev]

In Moscow, U.S. Secretary Kerry Gets a Conference Instead of Sanctions

John Kerry had to make do with an agreement to hold an international conference on Syria as the result of his visit to Russia.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived on 7 May for his first visit to Moscow. The Russian capital met him with tanks — a dress rehearsal was under way that day for the parade to take place on Red Square on Victory Day (May 9).  Whether Kerry was intimidated by Russia’s military force or not, the visit passed in an unexpectedly peace-loving vein, without any emphasis on the contentious issues.

The main topic of Kerry’s meeting with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, naturally, was the Syrian conflict. The U.S. Secretary of State, in the opinion of experts, was hoping for a breakthrough and counting on convincing Moscow not to block sanctions against Damascus. It didn’t work. According to the summaries of Kerry’s talks with Putin and Lavrov, which lasted several hours and ended shortly before midnight, the heads of the foreign policy ministries of both countries held a press conference where not a word was said about sanctions. Instead, the emphasis was put on their managing to come to an agreement about a new international conference on Syria, which should become a logical continuation of last year’s talks in Geneva.

“During the signing of the Geneva agreement, the U.S. didn’t have a particular wish to facilitate peace talks with Assad and the opposition,” said Alexander Panov, former Russian deputy foreign minister. “Now there is such a wish. Kerry, for example, stated that both sides are interested in stability in the Middle East region. The U.S. realizes that the situation is at a dead end and that betting on the victory of the armed opposition is not justified, and that means another way has to be sought.”

Neither side of the Syrian conflict, however, have expressed any particular enthusiasm regarding a possible conference. The Syrian opposition, for example, is not prepared to talk to representatives of President Bashar Assad.

“Everything depends on the participation of Assad in the talks,” Mahmoud al-Hamza, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council told Izvestia. “We are for a peace process, but without Assad. He must leave— that opinion is shared by the entire opposition. But Russia wants us to start talks without preliminary conditions, which is unacceptable for those who have been fighting the regime for two years.”

The agreement of Moscow and Washington does not mean that Syria will listen to them, according to Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.

“Lavrov and Kerry can be in agreement on everything, even down to the smallest details, but the Syrians will up and refuse to follow their plans,” argued Lukyanov.

In his words, if the moderate opposition in Syria is under a certain influence from the West, then the Islamist fighters who have grown stronger in recent months do not depend on the U.S., Russia, or Europe in any way.

Kerry did not manage to make progress on acute issues in bilateral Russian-American relations which have been spoiled after the passage in the U.S. of the Magnitsky List.

“The agenda turned out to be very curtailed,” said Lukyanov. “At the mutual agreement of both sides, the question of the Magnitsky List was avoided, and problems of adoption of Russian children in America have also not become a subject for bilateral discussion.”

Kerry did not address issues sensitive for Moscow at a meeting 8 May with Russian human rights organizations either, where the conversation usually goes much more candidly. According to those who attended, Kerry listened attentively to all the participants, but no more than that.

“We told him about the unlawful inspections of non-commercial organizations, about the fact that they want to hang the label ‘foreign agents’ on us, that laws are being violated,” said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group. “Kerry expressed sympathy; however, there are no concrete results from this meeting yet.”

In Lukyanov’s opinion, the meeting with the human rights advocates was necessary for Kerry simply to observe decorum.  The Republican Party now accuses U.S. President Barack Obama of betrayal of traditional American values and the achievements of democracy. Thus the Secretary of State was simply obliged to show that he was paying attention to human rights issues.