Skip to main content

Why Putin is dictating terms to Kerry on Ukraine

By Simon Tisdall, Special to CNN
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Ukraine has been riven with divisions for months.
Ukraine has been riven with divisions for months.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Kerry's state department failed to see the Ukraine crisis coming, writes Simon Tisdall
  • He evidently did not believe Russia would be so audacious as to annex Crimea, he says
  • Tisdall: Ukraine has little choice but to seek an accommodation with Russia
  • Unless Kerry raises his game, the terms will be dictated by Putin, writes Tisdall

Editor's note: Simon Tisdall is assistant editor and foreign affairs columnist at the Guardian. He was previously foreign editor of the Guardian and The Observer and served as White House correspondent and U.S. editor in Washington D.C. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

London (CNN) -- High-level talks to defuse the Ukraine crisis, due to be held by the U.S., Russia, the EU and the Kiev government next week, amount to a big personal test for John Kerry after a notably accident-prone first year as U.S. President Barack Obama's secretary of state.

Kerry's State Department failed to see the Ukraine crisis coming and may have inadvertently helped to provoke it. They pushed too hard as the EU moved to cement closer ties with the former Soviet republic. Then, when Ukraine's elected, pro-Russia president was forcibly overthrown, the U.S. barely concealed its satisfaction.

Simon Tisdall
Simon Tisdall

The conviction that Washington deliberately engineered the Kiev "coup" predictably enraged Russian President Vladimir Putin. He decided he would try a bit of direct intervention of his own. The result was last month's annexation of Crimea and the apparent, continuing Russian military threat to eastern Ukraine.

Key international issues

There is a bit of a pattern emerging here.

Take Egypt for example. In November last year, during a Middle East tour, Kerry gave his backing to the military junta that deposed the country's elected Muslim Brotherhood President, Mohamed Morsy, and brutally repressed thousands of his supporters.

Financial leaders face tough Ukraine talks
Searching for tanks on the Russian border
Donetsk protesters demand independence
Kiev issues 'ultimatum' to protestors

Kerry declared that Egypt was following a "roadmap" back to democracy and that Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the general in charge, enjoyed his confidence. Since then, the repression has only gotten worse, and Egyptian democracy has become a bad joke. Hundreds of Brotherhood supporters were sentenced to death in risibly unfair court trials, amid a widening crackdown on political dissent and independent media.

El-Sisi now plans to become president. Kerry has become more critical, but the die is cast.

Very soon, Egypt will have a new dictator to replace former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, only younger and potentially more vicious. This dire prospect is not what the Arab Spring was about, and surely not what the Obama administration intended.

Kerry's judgment has not proved any more impressive in his handling of several other key international issues. He threw his weight behind the Syrian peace talks process after receiving encouragement, ironically, from Putin, who is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's main external backer.

But it seems the wily Russian leader saw Kerry coming from way off.

Moscow continued to aid, abet and arm the Assad regime while the U.S.-backed opposition groups squabbled and split and eventually achieved next to nothing in the Geneva talks. Kerry's plan to discuss a transitional government in Damascus never got to first base.

Out of touch

Kerry invested a surprising amount of personal capital in reviving peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, making optimistic prognostications about his chances of success where so many others have failed.

Perhaps it was a generational thing. Kerry, aged 70, has lived with the Israel-Palestine conflict all of his professional life. When he finally became secretary of state, maybe he thought: "At last, I have my chance to fix this." But he hasn't.

In fact, following the Palestinian Authority's decision last week to seek U.N.-recognized statehood, and the Israeli government's reaction in breaking off most contacts, the situation is rapidly deteriorating again.

Now Kerry faces his biggest challenge -- persuading, or forcing, another bad guy (namely Putin) to back off in Ukraine at a time when the Russian leader seems ever more convinced of American weakness.
Simon Tisdall

Kerry's behavior in all these cases was delusional and out of touch with the realities on the ground, as the Washington Post's Jackson Diehl has argued, saying: "Egypt is under the thumb of an authoritarian general. The Syrian peace talks imploded soon after they began. The Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are hanging by a thread. All along the way, Kerry -- thanks to a profound misreading of the realities on the ground -- was enabling the bad guys."

Now Kerry faces his biggest challenge -- persuading, or forcing, another bad guy (namely Putin) to back off in Ukraine at a time when the Russian leader seems ever more convinced of American weakness.

According to Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former Obama state department official speaking Thursday to the BBC, Putin formed that opinion, rightly or wrongly, when the U.S. ducked military action in Syria last year. Now he appears to believe Washington, and therefore NATO, will avoid a physical confrontation over Ukraine at all costs, and that this gives him a clear negotiating advantage.

Ahead of next week's talks, Kerry could be misreading the situation again. He evidently did not believe Russia would be so audacious as to annex Crimea. He was wrong. Now, judging by recent statements, he is getting it wrong again. He seems to believe Putin is on the point of ordering similar action in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russia separatists have seized government buildings and appealed for Russian armed intervention.

Testifying to Congress this week, Kerry blamed the protests on "special forces and agents" sent by Moscow in a move he said "could potentially be a contrived pretext for military intervention just as we saw in Crimea." While the U.S. favored a diplomatic solution, Washington was ready "to do what is necessary" to maintain international order.

Putin must chortle at such empty-sounding rhetoric. He believes, with good reason, that the U.S. and its allies will not go to war over Ukraine. He probably also has no intention of sending in his tanks, simply because he does not need to.

The direct and indirect pressure on Kiev to bow to Russian demands for "constitutional reform," including some form of federal system and enhanced regional autonomy in the east, is massive and beginning to tell. It is backed up by powerful Russian economic leverage, especially over gas supplies and agricultural exports.

Ukraine is broke and divided. Crimea is lost. It has neither an elected government nor president. It is militarily vastly inferior. And it lacks allies it can rely upon, when the chips are down. Like it or not, it has little choice but to seek an accommodation with Russia. Unless Kerry significantly raises his game, the terms will be dictated by Putin.

OPINION: Egypt's el-Sisi manufactures new dictatorship

OPINION: For many Egyptians, there is no alternative but el-Sisi

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Russia is accused of being directly involved in Ukraine fighting. Diplomacy has failed, argues one commentator.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
It's been building for months. And now, according to some, Russia has launched a "full-scale invasion" of Ukraine.
updated 8:44 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
The EU announces it will pay for temporary storage of butter, skimmed milk powder and certain cheeses
updated 9:43 AM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
A shopkeeper's mutilated body, relatives' anguish, homes destroyed ... this is Donetsk.
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
Photojournalist Jonathan Alpeyrie explains how he captured rare images of a rebel funeral, and was arrested for his efforts.
updated 7:12 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
A 20-minute drive from Kiev takes you to a neighborhood that feels more like Beverly Hills than central Ukraine.
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Photos illustrate the ongoing crisis in Ukraine as fighting continues to flare in the region.
updated 8:34 AM EDT, Thu August 7, 2014
Western leaders stepped up sanctions, but the Russian President shows no sign of backing down.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon August 4, 2014
Despite mortar fire echoing in the distance, the international team combed through the wreckage of MH17.
updated 7:08 AM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
The road isn't easy -- past shelling and eerie separatist checkpoints. But where it leads is harder still.
updated 12:31 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Future imports, exports between the EU and Russia are now banned -- but existing contracts continue.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
More Russian aggression in Ukraine. More U.S. and European sanctions imposed on Moscow.
updated 8:01 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Deadly violence, ongoing tensions and the deliberate downing of a passenger airplane. Why should Americans worry?
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
The shooting down of MH17 may finally alert Washington and Europe to the danger of the conflict in Ukraine.
updated 7:04 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The United States and its allies are angrier at Russia now over Ukraine, but will they do anything more about it?
The U.S. releases satellite images it says shows the Russian military has fired across its border with Ukraine.
updated 11:40 AM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Some contend that larger weapons have come into Ukraine from Russia.
updated 4:37 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
Information about Ukraine, the second-largest European country in area after Russia.
updated 1:25 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Ukraine's Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin on securing the MH17 crash site and negotiating with the separatists.
Learn more about the victims, ongoing investigation and the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
updated 5:25 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
The downing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 put the pro-Russia rebels operating in Ukraine's eastern region center stage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT