World Review | US Secretary of State Kerry fails to thaw chilled relations with Russia

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US Secretary of State Kerry fails to thaw chilled relations with Russia

US Secretary of State Kerry fails to thaw chilled relations with Russia
John Kerry is widely recognised as a proponent of positive US-Russia relations (photo: dpa)

ANY HOPE that the appointment of John Kerry as US Secretary of State would spark closer ties between Russia and the States is already being dashed.

Russia gave an outwardly favourable nod to the news that the US Senate had confirmed John Kerry as new Secretary of State on January 29, 2013.

But that was little more than a political nicety – as was demonstrated by the six days it took Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov to reply to a phone call from Mr Kerry following North Korea’s underground nuclear test on February 11, 2013.

Likewise, at one point last year, Mr Kerry's predecessor Hillary Clinton also had trouble getting hold of Mr Lavrov to discuss Syria.

Mr Lavrov has a history of needling American counterparts – behaviour which prompted Hillary Clinton, during a final meeting, to remark that Russia was trying to 're-Sovietise' its neighbours.

When Mr Kerry was appointed, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich noted that Mr Kerry ‘is a well-known political figure with rich experience in international affairs and knowledge of international relations’. And he expressed a hope that ‘constructive work’ would pave the way for an improvement in relations that have been badly strained over the past year.

A similar message was conveyed by Mikhail Margelov, the chairman of the Federation Council’s International Affairs Committee. He noted that Mr Kerry ‘is a clear-headed politician’ who played an important role in the development of the ‘reset’ in US-Russian relations that took place at the outset of President Barack Obama’s first term.

So far so good. It all might be taken as a signal that Russia wishes to ease tensions with America over a range of issues, from human rights to Syria. In his confirmation hearing, Mr Kerry also expressed that he ‘would like to see if we can find some way to cooperate’.

But diplomatic cordiality and general happy talk will not alter the fact that the US-Russian relation is marked by substantial disagreements – on subjects such as Russia’s recent decision to ban adoptions of Russian children by US citizens - and by a rapid erosion of trust.

Following a meeting with US vice-president Joe Biden in Munich on February 2, 2013, Mr Lavrov noted that: ‘We have drawn the vice-president’s attention to the fact that there have been steps on [the US’s] part that provoked a rather sharp reaction in our public opinion.’

This was in line with the caveat that was issued by Vladimir Putin when he embarked on his third term as president, namely, that Russia will not tolerate any form of lecturing or meddling in its internal affairs.

Mr Putin openly castigated Hillary Clinton when she was the United States’ top diplomat as an instigator of the mass outpouring of anti-regime sentiment that marked the winter of 2011-12.

The chairman of the Russian Council for Foreign and Defence Policy, Fedor Lukyanov noted that the new secretary of state would not be bent on ‘aggravating relations with anyone’.

He also underlined that there was little hope for improved bilateral relations.

‘This is not even about a specific conflict but about the growing mutual alienation, mutual perceptions quickly changing in a negative direction. In this situation, even a calm and sensible man like Kerry, or any other Secretary of State, would not be able to change much,’ said Mr Lukyanov.

At his confirmation hearing, Mr Kerry recognised much the same noting that ‘it would be disingenuous and naive of me to sit here and not acknowledge to my colleagues that [relations between the US and Russia] slid backwards in recent years.’

The prospects for a much-needed renewal of cooperation between Russia and the US in solving the multiple problems that mark international relations today do not look good.

Professor Stefan Hedlund

STEFAN Hedlund is Professor and Research Director at the Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies, at Uppsala University, Sweden. He trained as an economist and has specialised in Russian ...

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