John Kerry is a man with extensive knowledge in foreign affairs having chaired the Senate Commission of Foreign Relations from 2009 to 2013. When he was nominated by President Obama to succeed Hilary Clinton as US Secretary of State, he was regarded as a safe pair of hands and somebody who was suitably qualified for the role. He has shown his determination to solve international problems such as his success in the Iran nuclear talks. His handling of the situation in Ukraine in recent days however, raises one particularly interesting question. Why has Kerry refused to meet Putin to find a diplomatic solution?
The answer given to us by US officials is that there will be little to discuss if the referendum on Crimea’s future goes ahead on Monday. The outcome of this referendum is going to be very clear as David Aaronovitch repeatedly said on Question Time, it is going to be rigged. The fact is, however, that this will not end on Monday. The ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych said in Russia yesterday ‘I will be back in Kiev’. He, along with the Russian government and the pro-Russian people of Ukraine believe he is their legitimate President. If Russia get their way in Crimea (which is looking inevitable), attention will then shift back to Kiev and Eastern Ukraine where there will no doubt be heavy protests as Yanukovych will try to reinstate himself as the country’s leader.
It seems odd that Kerry would miss this opportunity. Putin is clearly in control of the situation and he is not going to repeatedly offer invitations to Kerry to talk about the crisis. There have been claims by the US that Sergey Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister was not authorised to lead talks, but this is quite difficult to believe judging by the amount of meetings he and Putin have been conducting.
Relations between Lavrov and Kerry were already strained and this latest snub will no doubt stretch them even further apart making a diplomatic solution more and more unlikely. On Monday, Crimea will vote on its future and if this happens, the US has said that diplomacy between the two nations would be hopeless. That would therefore lead to economic sanctions as military intervention would not be supported by the US or the EU.
But then another question has to be asked. Is it in the countries interests to impose sanctions? For the US it probably is but how much pain can they inflict? There have been talks of freezing assets of wealthy Russians in the West. This could be very painful and Putin himself has noted this telling those with assets in the US to relocate before the freeze can be put in place. Another plan that is being discussed is missing the G8 Summit that is to be held in Sochi. However, this will do very little damage to Putin.
The EU will unlikely support such an approach with many countries, including Germany, relying on Russia for gas and this is why Putin is in a very powerful position. He knows the power that Russia has over many European states and relishes having this power. Kerry however, needs the strength to overcome this. Kerry needs to continue down the diplomatic path no matter what happens in Crimea on Monday as it will not be the end. It would be very surprising if Putin offered such an opportunity again. But if he did, Kerry must not miss it.