John Kerry’s Seven Hours of Weakness in Russia

Re-setting the "re-set" button -- with the same results.

SONY DSCLast week, Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Russia and met for seven hours with President Vladimir Putin and Putin’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov.  The purpose of the talks, the first in two years, was non-specific, but was apparently an attempt by Kerry to re-set the “re-set” button first pushed by his predecessor, Hillary Clinton.  The promise of “rolling back” the mild sanctions regime the West imposed on Russia on account of Putin’s annexation of Crimea and support of separatist rebels was bandied about, if only Russia would behave in the future.

Of course, nothing was accomplished.  The joint press conference of Kerry and Lavrov, which emphasized the 70-year-old victory against Nazi Germany, was well described by the AEI’s Leon Aron as "a gooey stream of unctuous cliches, non sequiturs, tautologies and euphemisms that underscored Putin's diplomatic victory."

There is something incorrigible about the Left’s love of negotiations for negotiations’ sake.  This Administration clearly believes that the cordial presentation of reasoned arguments to an implacable foe might just weaken the foe’s resolve.

President Putin, however, showed no signs of weakening, although no doubt he was delighted at the images of John Kerry showing up in Sochi, Russia, to meet with him, Kerry’s metaphorical hat in hand.

There was no mention of Russia’s recent sale of an advanced air defense weapons system to the mullahs of Iran.  This missile system sale is strictly designed to take the U.S. military option against Iran off the table and thus lessen our leverage with the regime.

Russia’s staunch support of its Syrian ally, Bashar al-Assad, never came up, at least in the public phase of the talks.  Maybe it was too embarrassing for Sec. Kerry: when Assad first gassed his own people with nerve agents a couple years ago, Putin stepped in and agreed to take shipment of all Assad’s killer chemicals, so Obama backed down from his “red-line.”  Embarrassingly for the Administration, Assad is still lobbing chemical shells into his civilian areas.

Kerry met with the Russians to keep the lines of communication open, he emphasized, claiming that there was "no substitute" for direct talks.  "This was an important visit at an important time, and we didn't come here with an expectation that we were going to define a specific path forward with respect to one crisis or another, or have a major breakthrough," he said.

But Kerry failed to understand that merely sitting down for talks with the Russian president conveys a message to Putin, and to the world.  “For Putin, this is a mark of respect,” said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. In the Kremlin’s view, he said, “this basically shows that Russia is anything but isolated, that Western leaders are reaching out.”

John Kerry promised that all sanctions against Russia would be removed just as soon as the cease fire in Ukraine is “fully implemented.” (It shows no sign of even taking effect, let alone being fully implemented.)  Russian troops have not withdrawn their heavy weapons, prisoners have not been released, no territory grabbed by separatists has been returned, and the attacks on Ukraine’s army go on.  Putin’s blatant annexation of the Crimea region was never brought up at all.

Kerry’s useless placation of an intransigent regime was set in stark relief to the Russian foreign ministry’s official response to his visit with President Putin.  Sensing weakness in Kerry’s presence, Lavrov’s ministry blasted the USA’s sanctions and defiantly promised never to back down on matters of its national interests—even while Kerry was meeting with Mr. Putin.

Typically for a man of the Left, Mr. Kerry saved his harshest words for his own embattled ally, Ukrainian President Poroshenko, who was sternly warned not to attempt the liberation of the Donetsk Airport from the Russian-backed rebels who had illegally seized it in the first place.  After all, such a move would put the nonexistent cease-fire in “serious jeopardy.”

To a Russian, a man who gives away something for nothing is weak, and weakness is never to be respected.  Had Mr. Kerry held out for some real concessions before agreeing to open-ended talks with the Russians, perhaps they would have sensed American strength instead, and new benefits would have flowed from that.  But it was not to be.

Christopher S. Carson, a lawyer, holds a master’s in National Security Studies.

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