Russian Media Sees Kissinger Visit As ‘Greetings from GOP’ and Possible Back Channel for White House

February 4, 2016
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 3, 2016. Photo by Alexei Druzhinin/AP Pool

LIVE UPDATES: Yesterday Secretary of State Henry Kissinger met with President Vladimir Putin in a “private meeting” which a Russian analyst believes may have been a message from the Republican Party.

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Russian Media Sees Kissinger Visit As ‘Greetings from GOP’ and Possible Back Channel for White House

Yesterday February 4, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger met with President Vladimir Putin in a “private meeting,” English-language TASS reported:

“Today friendly dialogue between Putin and Kissinger will continue in Moscow,” [Putin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov] said, adding that they have long-lasting relations and always keep in touch. “Putin praises this opportunity to discuss current issues of foreign policy and opinion exchange on the prospects for further developments,” Peskov said.

Peskov also said Putin was meeting with Horst Seehofer, the prime minister of the German federal land of Bavaria — indicating that even when relations are strained, as they have been with Germany and the US — Putin finds people to talk to to pursue his aims.

No news came out of the Kissinger-Putin meeting, which, while very high-profile, was “quiet diplomacy” and by some accounts a back channel of sorts to explore how US-Russian relations could be improved and sanctions removed. Today English-language TASS reported:

“He was here as a private person,” he said when asked by TASS in what capacity the US politician visited Russia. “As you may know he was here last time in 2013, if I’m not mistaken. He also came here in 2010, when Putin led the government.
He had visited Russia before that and Putin had been Kissinger’s guest in the United States. Theirs are systematic contacts. They have long traditions.”

Aleksandr Bratersky, writing for, went further with his analysis of the meeting in an article titled “Republic Greetings for Putin.”

The Russian take may seem peculiar as Kissinger hasn’t been central to the news of the American primary elections, but Bratersky cited Politico reporting a year ago that “GOP hopefuls still line up to kiss the ring of the 91-year-old statesman.”

Bratersky recalled that Putin and Kissinger have met a dozen times and that just as relations were as strained during the Cold War as they are now: Kissinger was associated with detente in the 1970s and the historic Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty signed by President Richard Nixon and Premier Leonid Brezhnev.
Last October, Kissinger published an op-ed page in the Wall Street Journal titled “A Path Out of the Middle East Collapse” that rapidly spawned an headline: “Kissinger: Let Russia Defeat ISIS, Its Destruction More Important Than Overthrow of Assad.
The was more strident than the complex arguments Kissinger compiled:

The fate of Syria provides a vivid illustration: What started as a Sunni revolt against the Alawite (a Shiite offshoot) autocrat Bashar Assad fractured the state into its component religious and ethnic groups, with nonstate militias supporting each warring party, and outside powers pursuing their own strategic interests. Iran supports the Assad regime as the linchpin of an Iranian historic dominance stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean.

The Gulf States insist on the overthrow of Mr. Assad to thwart Shiite Iranian designs, which they fear more than Islamic State. 
They seek the defeat of ISIS while avoiding an Iranian victory. This ambivalence has been deepened by the nuclear deal, which in the Sunni Middle East is widely interpreted as tacit American acquiescence in Iranian hegemony.

This led to his “realist” prescription:

These conflicting trends, compounded by America’s retreat from the region, have enabled Russia to engage in military operations deep in the Middle East, a deployment unprecedented in Russian history. Russia’s principal concern is that the Assad regime’s collapse could reproduce the chaos of Libya, bring ISIS into power in Damascus, and turn all of Syria into a haven for terrorist operations, reaching into Muslim regions inside Russia’s southern border in the Caucasus and elsewhere.

On the surface, Russia’s intervention serves Iran’s policy of sustaining the Shiite element in Syria. In a deeper sense, Russia’s purposes do not require the indefinite continuation of Mr. Assad’s rule. It is a classic balance-of-power maneuver to divert the Sunni Muslim terrorist threat from Russia’s southern border region. It is a geopolitical, not an ideological, challenge and should be dealt with on that level. Whatever the motivation, Russian forces in the region—and their participation in combat operations—produce a challenge that American Middle East policy has not encountered in at least four decades.

Kissinger’s realistic position was based on the inability of the US to “put forth an alternative structure” to Assad:

So long as ISIS survives and remains in control of a geographically defined territory, it will compound all Middle East tensions. Threatening all sides and projecting its goals beyond the region, it freezes existing positions or tempts outside efforts to achieve imperial jihadist designs. The destruction of ISIS is more urgent than the overthrow of Bashar Assad, who has already lost over half of the area he once controlled. Making sure that this territory does not become a permanent terrorist haven must have precedence. The current inconclusive U.S. military effort risks serving as a recruitment vehicle for ISIS as having stood up to American might.

The U.S. has already acquiesced in a Russian military role. Painful as this is to the architects of the 1973 system, attention in the Middle East must remain focused on essentials. And there exist compatible objectives. In a choice among strategies, it is preferable for ISIS-held territory to be reconquered either by moderate Sunni forces or outside powers than by Iranian jihadist or imperial forces. For Russia, limiting its military role to the anti-ISIS campaign may avoid a return to Cold War conditions with the U.S.

The problem is that Russia is not fighting ISIS, as The Interpreter has been reporting for months, and is increasingly evident to mainstream media; perhaps only 10% of its air strikes even hit ISIS, as Russia is focused on removing the enemies of Assad, the other rebel groups.
Even so, in the realist’s world, Russia is pursuing its interests; Kissinger pointed out what he saw as Russia’s motives: 

Russia’s principal concern is that the Assad regime’s collapse could reproduce the chaos of Libya, bring ISIS into power in Damascus, and turn all of Syria into a haven for terrorist operations, reaching into Muslim regions inside Russia’s southern border in the Caucasus and elsewhere.

As Bratersky noted, Putin himself invoked the threat of Islamists to Russia’s security to justify his bombing campaign which began September 30, 2015.
Bratersky sees Kissinger as “a kind of envoy from the Republicans” and cites the sub-head of a Politico piece of a year ago: “GOP hopefuls still line up to kiss the ring of the 91-year-old statesman”:

He has become a Yoda-like figure, bestowing credibility and a statesman’s aura to politicians of both parties, including ones who may not actually share his worldview.

A Kissinger endorsement could be a major boost in a crowded GOP field. Though he often sits out primary contests, Kissinger backed John McCain in December 2007 when the Arizona Republican was still fending off other challengers. (He even granted a much-needed private audience to McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, the next year.)

Bratersky noted that candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz met with Kissinger, although Kissinger personally sympathized with Jeb Bush, who now seems to have no change given that he garnered only 3% of the votes in the Iowa primaries.
Bratersky cites Igor Zevelev, a political analyst and specialist on the US, who said (translation by The Interpreter):

“The party is in a serious crisis; such figures as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are on the rise. Not taking into account Bush, Marco Rubio shares Kissinger’s views, as a candidate of the republic establishment and an ‘alternative to Cruz and Trump.’

Rubio appears to be more in the anti-communist tradition of President Ronald Reagan, who challenged the Soviets extensively until finally making a deal with the last Soviet Communist leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.
Zevelev said Democrats also share Kissinger’s views; he cited Hillary Clinton as calling for a “new reset” if Russia will “make some concessions to the US.” Given that this would involve fulfilling the Minsk agreements, it does not appear consistent with Kissinger’s positions.
Last year, Thomas Graham of Kissinger Associates, a veteran Kremlinlogist, traveled with a team from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and other think tanks to meet Russian officials in a “back channel” on Minsk — without the Ukrainians — in Boisto, Finland. The closed meeting engendered a lot of criticism. The Americans met with former intelligence officer Leonid Reshetnikov of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS), as we reported.

A critique of The Interpreter’s report, drawn from Moskovsky Komsomolets, later was later made by an unnamed source who spoke to The Nation — likely Graham or someone else at the Boisto meeting — saying the group met with Reshetnikov after their conference, not before, so our article (actually a translation of a Russian journalist’s analysis) was naive; he couldn’t be seen as influencing it.

But the sequencing of the RISS meeting and Boisto conference wasn’t the point; both the RISS meeting and the Boisto conference took place before the Minsk talks — which Resetnikov and his like-minded colleagues were active in sabotaging, so that the Boisto agenda — itself a compromise unacceptable to the Ukrainians — was even further watered down. Reshetnikov made a point of denouncing Kissinger personally, saying he was responsible for mass kidnappings of leftists in Latin America and accused the US of wanting to take over Ukraine.

Bratersky implied that Kissinger’s visit yesterday served another purpose aside from any possible GOP messaging — as a back channel for the US establishment given that relations have been further strained since a US Treasury official said Putin is corrupt — and the White House backed him up. But that might not involve the Obama administration per se, or at least, not all factions in it: 
Jeffrey Mankoff of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told

“The days of the Obama Administration are coming to a close, and it no longer considers that it was to be very diplomatic with Russia. It seems that it is not important what the Kremlin thinks 

As the Politico article pointed out, despite their seeming political differences, Kissinger Associates has been close to the Obama Administration; Amb. Samantha Power, US permanent representative to the UN was friendly with Kissinger and former ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul was quoted as saying that Kissinger reported back to Washington on his meetings in Moscow, including “at least once directly to Obama’s national security advisor.” And this time, too, Kissinger said he would report back to Washington.
For a number of Russia-watchers, Kissinger’s RealPolitik regarding the Kremlin was summed up in an Oval Office recording from 1973, later published, showing him taking a pragmatic view about Soviet Jews demanding to leave the USSR. “If they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern,” Kissinger said. By that he mean that it was not worth provoking a nuclear war over.
What’s at stake now is whether the possible next Republic president of the US will adopt a friendly and supportive attitude toward Russia, as Donald Trump has done, or at least a cooperative attitude as George Bush had in the past, or whether the possible future president will be like Marco Rubio — although given the preponderance of GOP candidates friendly to Putin, perhaps the commentator has understood him better than current headlines suggest.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick