The Sochi Meeting: Russia and America Back at the Negotiating Table?

Could Kerry's visit signal that high-level dialogue between Moscow and Washington can resume?

The timing of Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to Russia to hold high-level talks with Russian president Vladimir Putin and foreign minister Sergei Lavrov—which occurred after the Victory Day celebrations in Moscow—was always a gamble. But it was not entirely a shot in the dark.

Once it became apparent that Western leaders—along with the South Korean and Turkish presidents and the Japanese prime minister—would not be attending Putin's gala, and that neither the Chinese nor the Turks were moving as quickly as Russia might have liked in terms of important energy projects—the Obama administration might have concluded that Putin would be more amenable to compromise on a variety of issues, especially concerning Ukraine, Iran and Syria.

Events in the first ten days of May, however, dashed those hopes. There was progress on moving the Turk Stream project forward, with the ambitious goal of having the remainder of Russia's westward natural-gas exports bypass Ukraine in two years. Enough of the key non-Western leaders were represented in Moscow to bolster Putin's claim that Russia is not isolated.

While eschewing participation in the formal Victory Day events, German chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to Russia to confer with Putin about ways to salvage the fragile cease-fire in Ukraine. Data released this month indicates that the Russian economy has not been as badly damaged by sanctions and the fall in energy prices as was originally anticipated. Finally, Putin's new partner on the international stage, Chinese president Xi Jinping, came to Moscow bearing gifts of new economic agreements.

In Sochi, Putin was willing to talk, but not to compromise. Confident that his own pivot to Asia gives Russia greater breathing room in the face of Western sanctions, the Russian president reiterated his commitment to the Minsk process, but showed little inclination to grasp at the "off-ramp" proffered by the U.S. secretary of state.

The Russian goal remains to get the Ukrainian government to have to recognize the separatist entities as legitimate negotiating partners in shaping the future of Ukraine, including its constitutional structures and its foreign policy. This is a position that Western governments are not prepared to endorse—as the outcome of the talks between Putin and Merkel on Sunday indicated. At best, what all parties in the conflict did agree on at the Sochi talks was that the tenuous cease-fire should not be further destabilized or weakened; Kerry also stated publicly that Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko should "think twice" before attempting any military action in the area of the Donetsk airport.

While some might denounce Kerry's statement as craven abandonment of the Ukrainians, it reflects the harsh reality on the ground. Any initial gains the Ukrainians might make would be swiftly reversed by covert and not-so-covert Russian assistance to separatist forces. It is also a stark reminder to the Ukrainian side not to become overconfident that a few months of training exercises and some Western military aid has effectively shifted the military balance of forces. Despite pressure from Congress, the Obama administration remains uninterested in pursuing any sort of military escalation of the conflict or involving the United States as a more active player.

On other issues, no breakthroughs were achieved. Prior to Sochi, U.S. officials speaking on background offered slight optimism that recent battlefield reverses suffered by the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria might make Moscow more open to considering U.S. plans for transition, but Russia still shows no signs that it is prepared to abandon its ally in Damascus. The United States and Russia differ over whether or not current sanctions on Iran—which are to be lifted in conjunction with the conclusion of a final, binding agreement on the country's nuclear program—ought to be automatically reimposed in the event of Iranian noncompliance, or whether a new set of sanctions would have to make its way through the UN Security Council—a prospect Washington does not relish, given difficulties in the past in getting meaningful sanctions against Tehran imposed.

Russia also has less difficulty with Iran's reemergence as a regional power in the Middle East, in contrast with the difficulties Iran's resurgent capabilities to project power and influence create for U.S. allies.

Luckily, no one expected any sort of reset to come from the Sochi talks. But does Kerry's visit signal that high-level dialogues between Moscow and Washington can resume? For the first time in a long while, senior officials talked to each other, rather than past each other in the media. No meeting of the minds took place, but all parties now have a clearer understanding of the each other’s positions.

Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security studies and a contributing editor at The National Interest, is co-author of  Russian Foreign Policy: Vectors, Sectors and Interests (CQ Press, 2013). The views expressed here are his own.

Image: Kremlin.ru