Kerry's pointless diplomacy in Russia

Story highlights

  • John Kerry meets with Russian president and foreign minister
  • Leon Aron: Kerry does not have anything to show for his efforts

Leon Aron is a resident scholar and the director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)From the moment John Kerry's trip to Russian President Vladimir Putin's summer residence in Sochi on the Black Sea was announced, it was hard to see what the U.S. secretary of state hoped to achieve. Indeed, of the three objectives on Kerry's official agenda -- seeking Russian assistance in ending the Syrian civil war, bringing peace to Ukraine and "keeping the lines of communication open" between the U.S. and Russia -- not one made sense.

On Syria, for example, there is no incentive for Putin to let the conflict abate and every incentive to exacerbate it. The continuation of the Syrian civil war, which destabilizes Iraq, bolsters Iran and weakens moderate Arab regimes allied with the United States is clearly in Russia's geopolitical interests.
As to Ukraine, patriotic mobilization is Putin's strongest legitimizing factor given the sharp decline in Russia's GDP, inflation, the volatile ruble and (very likely in the near future) the end of government subsidies to numerous enterprises, which will mean mass firings of workers, especially doctors and teachers. Defending Russian-speakers in Ukraine against the alleged "fascist junta in Kiev," and Russia against Ukraine as NATO's "foreign legion" (Putin's words) is a vital domestic political imperative. With this in mind, it is unclear why Putin would want to lessen the tension by ending the war on Ukraine.
    So why exactly was Kerry's trip necessary?
    Keeping lines of communication open is what ambassadors are for -- or deputy assistant secretaries of state. Isn't it obvious that a U.S. secretary of state joining Putin at his vacation palace during one of the most strident confrontations between a post-Soviet Russia and the West will only bolster Putin's image of a feared and thus respected or, better yet, "indispensable" Russia? Apparently deaf to the public implications of this kind of diplomacy, John Kerry did not seem to notice -- or care.
    Still, one should perhaps give the U.S. secretary of state the benefit of the doubt. Was there an ace up Kerry's sleeve, something the secretary could use to cajole or threaten Putin? Would Kerry reveal something that would force the Kremlin dictator to alter his geopolitical calculus?
    Alas, as the press conference after the talks made painfully clear, not only did Kerry not have anything to show for his efforts, but his post-meeting performance also was a gooey stream of unctuous clichés, nonsequiturs, tautologies and euphemisms that underscored Putin's diplomatic victory.
    The most frequently used words in Kerry's opening remarks seemed to be "thanks" and "grateful" to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and, even more so, to President Putin, whom Kerry said he was "privileged" to see. Given that nothing was achieved, why was the U.S. secretary of state grateful? Was he "especially grateful to President Putin" for devoting all that time to explain Russia's position? For anyone who knows anything about the Russian dictator, this translates into an hourlong harangue and denunciation of the United States, NATO and European Union. Kerry also made sure that everyone knew that President Obama, too, was thankful.
    It got worse.
    The secretary hailed the Geneva accords on chemical weapons as an example of what great things could be achieved "when the U.S. and Russia work together." One would think that Kerry would be embarrassed to recall how Russia saved the Bashar al-Assad regime by seizing on Kerry's remarks about the Syrian regime's giving up chemical weapons as the quid pro quo for America stepping away from the self-announced "red line" and a bombing campaign, which likely would have toppled al-Assad. Since then, the Syrian regime has smoothly transitioned from killing women and children with chemical weapons to decimating them with barrel bombs stuffed with nails (and lately, it is alleged, resorted to chlorine, apparently overlooked in the surrender of other lethal chemicals).
    But the apotheosis of pandering was reached when Kerry talked about Russia's war on Ukraine. Happy to acknowledge that he, Lavrov and Putin were of one mind when it came to seeking "peace" in Ukraine, Kerry glossed over "challenges" such as ceasefire violations and "whoever has instigated" them. There was also "the continued arming," but the source was never mentioned.
    Despite the obvious reality that Putin can end all hostilities in Ukraine by making a 30-second phone call to Donetsk and Lugansk, Kerry continued the charade of the Minsk-1 and Minsk-2 negotiations, in which an aggressor (Russia) was treated as a peacemaker. In fact, speaking about his forthcoming visit with President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine, Kerry re-affirmed the charade rules by stating, very firmly, that he would demand that "everybody" abide by Minsk-2. Kerry was courageously holding both the aggressor and his victim to the same unbending standard! (The word "aggression" was never mentioned.) In one of many heartfelt tributes to the unity of interests between the United States and Putin's Russia, Kerry stated that he and Putin-Lavrov shared the conviction that their greatest geopolitical priority was combating "violent extremism" in the Middle East.
    Having just seen the borders of one of Europe's largest states violated by its neighbor for the first time since the end of World War II, I doubt most Europeans (and certainly most European leaders) would agree with this threat assessment.
    But neither Russia's attack on the European post-Cold War order nor the victims of Russia's aggression in Ukraine (the annexed Crimea was not even mentioned) seemed to have any resonance in Kerry's rhetoric.
    Worse than pointless diplomacy, worse even than the wasted prestige of his office, Kerry's meeting was shot through with a moral obtuseness that always comes to haunt those who erode the key strength and appeal of the liberal democratic West: its ability to stand by and defend its values in the face of aggression and tyranny.