Obama’s endless incompetence in foreign policy: Kerry to travel to Russia to meet with Putin and Lavrov in Sochi

How can we win, if (Putin) is boxing, and we are playing chess?”
Lech Walensa

It was announced today in Washington that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Sochi on Tuesday to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in order to discuss the Ukraine, peace negotiations in Syria, and the nuclear deal with Iran.

See Felicia Schwartz, “Kerry to Meet With Putin in Russia on Tuesday; Meeting would be first Cabinet-level U.S. visit to Russia since start of crisis in Ukraine, Wall Street Journal, May 11, 2015 (12:26 p.m.).

Two days after the West’s successful boycott of Putin’s Victory Parade in Moscow, the gigantic egos that inhabit the White House and on occasion the Seventh Floor of the State Department have broken ranks with Europe, rushing to the Aggressor’s lair in Sochi to meet with Putin and Lavrov.

Has Kerry taken too many airplane flights, absorbed too many cosmic rays, and spent so little time connecting the dots that he actually thinks he can “pressure” the Russians into changing course in the Ukraine, with his silver tongue?

Or that he can persuade Putin to force al-Assad to enter peace negotiations, and as a result of his own personal diplomatic brilliance agree to negotiations in Syria—a country torn asunder by al-Assad’s war cimes, crimes against humanity and other depradations, and compounded by the competing barbarism of ISIS or the Islamic State group?

Or that, following the recent conclusion of a framework agreement for the final nuclear deal with Iran by June 30, his personal intervention with Putin is needed to seal the deal?

If so, perhaps he has had too many red carpet treatments on his endless diplomatic travels, as a white knight on a shining white horse who must show up in every capital and personally intervene for any agreement on anything to be reached.

Are there no other capable diplomats and ambassadors who Kerry might use to negotiate with foreign leaders and execute foreign policy?

Let us examine again the proffered reasons for the trip:

(1) To discuss the hard work of securing compliance with the Minsk II agreement of February 12, 2015 with Putin, who is directly responsible for repeatedly violating its terms, with thousands of Russian troops fighting in the Donbas region of the Eastern Ukraine, i.e., to further pursue appeasement of the invading Russian Bear.

How can such discussions ever be fruitful, so long as Putin denies the presence of Russian troops in the eastern Ukraine?

They are the problem. How can that problem be solved so long as its very existence is denied?

What we have here is more talk, no actions, in the face of Russian aggression. And to add insult to injury, Obama and Kerry agree to hold the meeting in Russia instead of on neutral ground.

Words will not change Russia’s actions, as anyone who has followed events in the Ukraine for the last 15 months will understand. One should recall Kerry’s April 17, 2014 agreement in Geneva with Lavrov, the EU and the Ukraine, whose terms were violated with increasing intensity immediately following the agreement, or the January 21, 2015 agreement between Kerry and Lavrov and others to withdraw heavy weapons from the front lines, as their use by Russia and its puppet “separatists” intensified.

Is the Crimea on the agenda in Sochi? If not, why not, and what will Putin gather from the omission?

The principal effect of the Sochi meeting will be to weaken Russia’s isolation from the West.

Kerry has failed to grasp the fundamental difference between German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s meeting with Putin on May 10, and his own rush to see Putin in Sochi. Merkel, as the leader of the country that devastated Russia in World War II, had a unique reason for commemorating the soldiers who died at German hands, a highly symbolic action aimed at the reconciliation of two peoples. By not attending the Victory Parade on June 9, the Chancellor struck just the right balance.

Kerry has no such imperative reason to go to see Putin. His visit is ill-considered. In its aftermath, we can expect to see an increasing number of presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers meeting with Putin and the Russians.

In short, Kerry will be responsible for breaking the isolation of Putin, which is one of the few things which, over time, might cause him to consider a change of course.

(2) To continue to “work through the Russians” to find a solution to the civil war in Syria, despite the evidence of the last four years of the futility of such an approach in the absence of actions on the ground;

(3) To discuss the nuclear deal with Iran.

For a devastating critique of Obama’s approach to negotiating the final nuclear deal with Iran, see

Josef Joffe, “Im Bomben-Basar; Teheran zeigt den USA, was wahre Verhandlungskunst ist,” Die Zeit, 15. Abril 2015 (08:00 Uhr).

Apparently we live in an age where no one remembers anything, when unbounded egos vie for a chance to talk to the Great Dictator and Aggressor of Russia, whose plight is greatly eased by the divided leadership of the West, and the pacifists and appeasers who continue to oppose a policy of hard containment of Russia’s military aggression.

Historians will weep at the manifest stupidity and illusory nature of the hopes these actions pursue.

The primary reason for Kerry’s visit to see Putin in Russia appears to be personal vanity, and an exalted view that he, John Kerry, can make significant progress with Putin by speaking words to him in his physical presence.

Yet if there is one truth that emerges from recent years of dealing with Putin in Syria and the Ukraine, it is that Putin is never moved by threats or words, only by actions.

At the same time, Putin’s and Lavrov’s agreements are not worth the paper they are written on.

So, once again, we see the unending incompetence of Obama and his foreign policy team at work. Kerry goes to see Putin, in Russia, breaking his isolation, and for what? Absolutely nothing.

This is what we can expect from Obama’s foreign policy team in the remaing year and a half of his administration.

An endemic failure to connect the dots.

A dogged determination to avoid any actions on the ground that might anger Russia, as in the Ukraine (e.g., arming the government’s forces with lethal weapons).

A failure to lead the Atlantic Alliance and the EU in responding to Russian threats and aggression, including a failure to maintain unity among NATO and EU member states in dealing with Putin.

Indeed, how can we beat Putin, “if he is boxing and we are playing chess?”

The Trenchant Observer

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The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.

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