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Putin May Be a No-Show During Kerry Visit to Russia

Rob Garver

Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Russia Tuesday hit its first snag before he even arrived in the resort town of Sochi for meetings with President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Specifically, the Kremlin said Putin might not be there at all.

The State Department on Monday morning released a statement by Marie Harf that said, in part, “Secretary of State John Kerry will travel on May 11 to Sochi, Russia, where he will meet with President Putin, Foreign Minister Lavrov, and other Russian officials on May 12 to discuss a full range of bilateral and regional issues, including Iran, Syria, and Ukraine. This trip is part of our ongoing effort to maintain direct lines of communication with senior Russian officials and to ensure U.S. views are clearly conveyed.”

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Not so fast, said the Kremlin.

Early Monday evening Moscow time, Putin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told a Moscow radio station that no decision had been made about Putin’s participation in the meeting. “We will let you know if such a meeting takes place,” he said, according to government-run news site Sputnik.

The gamesmanship didn’t end there. On Monday, according to the Associated Press, the Russian foreign ministry released a statement saying that the meetings were part of a bid to “normalize bilateral relations on which global stability largely depends,” while at the same time accusing the U.S. of causing the current crisis in Ukraine by trying to “isolate” Russia.

“We emphatically raise the issue of the need to resolve the problems created by Washington in our bilateral agenda,” the statement said.

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The claim gets at the justification used by some who defend Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula last year as a necessary step caused by an increasingly Western orientation of countries in Eastern Europe that were once part of the Soviet Union.

Russia has seen moves by the U.S. and its allies to encourage the opening of Eastern European economies to increased trade and overall closer relations with Western countries as a sort of aggression by non-military means. The idea that Ukraine, long part of Russia, might turn to the West made Russia fear a loss of both influence over a key neighbor, and potentially one of the major port for its Black Sea fleet. As a result, the argument goes, Russia had no strategic choice but to invade Crimea, securing the port of Sevastopol and destabilizing Ukraine in a single blow.

Of course, few in the West would accept that logic, much less allow that it justifies the invasion of a sovereign country, which partly explains why relations between the West and Moscow are so strained these days.

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Kerry will have a full agenda when he meets with Lavrov – and maybe Putin – tomorrow. In addition to the status of Ukraine, he is expected to address the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Syria, where Russia has been supportive of President Bashar al Assad’s brutal defense of his regime against Syrian citizens seeking democratic rule. The topic of continued negotiations with Iran over the status of its nuclear program – talks in which Russia has played an important role despite ongoing tension surrounding other matters – is also expected to be discussed.

Kerry has not been to Russia since 2013, before the current tensions arose. During that visit he met with both Putin and Lavrov.

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