US Secretary of State John Kerry Meets with Putin, Lavrov in Moscow: Losses in Translation

March 25, 2016
US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the Kremlin on March 24, 2016. Photo by State Department

LIVE UPDATES: US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Moscow yesterday, March 24 for an intensive day of meetings that led to some modest joint proposals on Syrian peace talks but no breakthroughs or pledges regarding imprisoned Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko.

Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

The previous issue is here.

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How Stalin Returned to Russian Contemporary Life – Meduza


In Previously Unannounced Move, Putin Reappoints Ramzan Kadyrov As Leader Of Chechnya

As we have been reporting, Ramzan Kadyrov’s term as leader of Chechnya is set to expire on April 5. In a previously-unannounced move, Russian President Vladimir Putin has appointed Kadyrov as acting head of Chechnya until the presidential elections.

The Russian state-propaganda outlet Sputnik reports:

“Your term ends on [April] 5, as you just mentioned. Based on what you’ve done over the past years, first of all for the Chechen people and for those living in the republic, but for Russia as a whole as well, I signed a decree today appointing you the acting head of the Chechen Republic, hoping for your participation in the September elections,” Putin told Kadyrov at a televised meeting.

Kadyrov posted clips of the meeting on his Instagram page

It’s not yet clear how this decision by the Russian president is legal, since the Chechen constitution was modified already so that Kadyrov could stay on this long.

Of course, as we have seen time and time again from Kadyrov (read below), rules are just not that important to the Chechen leader.

The timing of the announcement is also suspect as it falls on a holiday — but one celebrated in the West, not the East. This is Easter weekend for most Catholics and Western protestants — Orthodox Easter is in May. As a result, this news may slip under the radar in the West, as may any news about potential backlash to this announcement.

James Miller

Putin to Meet with Kadyrov Today
Russian President Vladimir Putin is to meet with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov today, RBC reported, citing Dmitry Preskov, presidential administration spokesman.
“There are several working meetings in the schedule today. One of them is regional, that’s a meeting with Kadyrov,” said Interfax.
There was no further information on the topic of the meeting, but given that Kadyrov’s term as head of Chechnya is due to expire April 5, it is likely a meeting to decide or confirm his future.
Rumors have circulated for weeks that the Kremlin has already decided to keep the controversial Chechen strongman in power, despite all kinds of allegations of his involvement in disappearances and murders at home, the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, and corrupt schemes involving the extraction of contributions to a fund named in honor of his father, Akhmad, who was assassinated in May 2004.
Kadyrov has made a number of provocative statements in recent weeks targeting the Russian opposition — notably posting a clip from a surveillance video taken of opposition leader Mikhail Kasyanov, chair of the PARNAS party and journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, Jr., coordinator of Open Russia, together in Brussels. He put a sniper scope over the clip and accused them of receiving money from the EU. After that, Kasyanov was attacked several times by men throwing cakes and eggs at him and shouting threats, and he canceled one meeting with voters.
After Ilya Yashin, the deputy chair of PARNAS issued a report chronicling all the accusations against Kadyrov, he was threatened with a libel suit by the Chechen government.
Last week a group of journalists and human rights activists were attacked by Chechen thugs who beat them and torched their car, leaving the driver in the hospital with multiple broken bones and two foreign journalists and a Russian reporter with injuries as well. After that, Kadyrov seemed to maintain “radio silence” and posted about other topics on Instagram.
One of his recent posts contains lavish praise of Danil Martynov, his loyal deputy and trainer of the Interior Ministry’s Internal Troops described as Kadyrov’s “personal army.” Martynov, a former member of the Alfa spetsnaz in Moscow, has long been preparing to go to the North Pole to train under harsh weather conditions and raise the Chechen pole. It seemed strange that Kadyrov would send out of the country such a crucial figure during a time of transition. Either he had already been assured of the continuation of his rein in Chechnya, or he didn’t trust Martynov, which seemed to go against all his years of close cooperation with him and praise on Instagram.

2016-03-25 09:19:29

Ekaterina Sokiarianskaia, a researcher for the International Crisis Group and a long time human rights advocate in the North Caucasus said she believed Kadyrov would be kept in place.

A Reuters story today quoting multiple experts did not contain any hard news about Kadyrov, but one seasoned analyst, Denis Sokolov, said he believed Putin would not make a “U-turn” now and remove Kadyrov. The question would be which figure in the Chechen leadership would have the control over the armed forces as well as the connections in Moscow to do the job.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

US Secretary of State John Kerry Meets with Putin, Lavrov in Moscow; Quips and Losses in Translation, No Breakthroughs

US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Moscow yesterday, March 24 for an intensive day of meetings late into the wee hours which began with a walk on Tverskaya.

For some reason, the US decided to play up the age-old theme of Russian-American cooperation in space (think “Apollo-Soyuz“) by featuring  Kelly chatting with US astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, and then staging a Facebook chat with the two “space conquerers.”

Polite (screened?) Russian posters obliged by asking the pair anodyne questions like how they slept in space or why the age of space travelers was higher now, and if they had ever seen any UFOs. Kornienko replied, “Unfortunately, no.” 

US-Russian space cooperation is the one area where the US and at times Russia try to remain positive, but the US extended some sanctions related to Russia’s annexation of Crimea to the space program, and recently hardliner Vice Premier Dmitry Rogozin retaliated by saying Russia planned to end the International Space Station program and build its own by 2020.

And has happened before with US-Russian relations, things lost in translation were at issue.

According to, Kerry said at a joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov uploaded to YouTube [reverse translation]:

“I also mentioned Nadezhda Savchenko and that she must be allowed to return to Ukraine. This is a matter of a humanitarian nature. It must be resolved immediately. The same concerns other people who were unlawfully detained.”

BBC correspondent Sarah Rainsford explained that Lavrov’s statement on unjustly convicted Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko was not in fact a breakthrough.

When RIA Novosti, the formerly more independent state news agency said “Putin gave Kerry to understand that the case of Savchenko may be resolved,” in fact Lavrov said something less distinct, according to Rainsford who understands Russian and was present at the press conference.

As can be seen from the official Russian Foreign Ministry transcript of the press conference with Kerry and Lavrov, Lavrov repeated the same positions the Kremlin has outlined in the past:

– Russia views Savchenko as now a convicted criminal;

– Her health is “fine” and she is “under the care” of Russian doctors;

– Ukrainian doctors cannot be allowed to visit her because of her “unworthy” behavior during her trial [where she gave the finger to the Russian court system]. “Contempt of court is punishable by up to two years in many US states,” insisted Lavrov, in the usual effort to draw an untenable moral equivalence between the two states. 

Convicted narcotics dealer Konstantin Yaroshenko was “never involved in the drug trade” said Lavrov; Viktor Bout, a notorious international arms trader is also innocent, he maintained.

Novaya Gazeta said Kerry offered a “more modest” solution to the war in Ukraine and offered to serve as an intermediary in the exchange of Savchenko for Russian prisoners in Ukraine. 

ABC reported that after four hours of meetings with Putin, Kerry emerged to reiterate past pledges but also said there will now be a “target schedule” for Syrian peace talks. 

With Russia making a partial exit from the war in Syria, the focus has turned back to the war in Ukraine which not only didn’t go away, but has heated up in some respects in recent weeks.

The meeting between Kerry and Putin had the usual forced effort at making jokes that have been the hallmark of past US-Russian meetings.

Quipped Putin:  

“On the one hand, it’s quite a democratic way of conduct, but on the other hand, I thought probably the situation in the United States is not that good and there is no one to assist the secretary of state in carrying his luggage,” said Putin, whose own country’s economy has been hurting due to oil low prices.

“I hear your economy is okay,” Putin continued, while alongside Kerry at the Kremlin. “I mean, there are no — there is no slowdown. Probably then I thought there was something in that case of your — in the briefcase of yours you couldn’t trust anyone else with. Probably you brought some money with you to haggle on key matters.”

 Kerry took the jab in stride and replied:

“When we have a private moment, I’ll show you what’s in my briefcase,” Kerry said. “And I think you’ll be surprised – pleasantly.”

He might have referenced Putin’s own luggage-handling days from a frequently-cited photo of Putin’s humble origins after he left the KGB and joined St. Peterburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak’s staff.

2016-03-25 03:53:03

Then there was a joke about the relationship between the press and the government: 
Kerry was upbeat about his meetings, as usual. Lavrov noted that a record in the last year with 18 meetings with Kerry, 3 of which were in Moscow.
Kidding aside, the meeting served as an opportunity to stress US positions:

These points were important to articulate, because the Russian stance is to repeatedly ignore blatant ceasefire violations, to remain silent on their own takeover of the Ukrainian border and constant intimidation of OSCE monitors, and to stress the need for Ukraine to change its Constitution nonetheless — a point also often picked up by the Western media which distorts the actual lack of Russian compliance.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick