For the May 12 summit between Vladimir Putin and John Kerry in the Olympic city of Sochi, we could use a slogan inspired by the site of their meeting: It’s not about winning, but about participating.
It was the first such summit meeting since May 2013. Considering the very fragile peace in eastern Ukraine, which is permanently threatened due particularly to the activities of pro-Russian separatists with Moscow’s open, or at the absolute minimum, quiet, support, the very fact of a direct personal meeting was important. In the midst of tensions, constantly on the verge of further possible conflict, the axiom that even an attempt at political dialogue is better than the language of weapons is valid. But at the same time, the meeting couldn’t be expected to visibly alter the chill or, especially, the fundamental distrust between Washington and Moscow, or to actually chart a peaceful course out of the Ukrainian crisis. No breakthrough in negotiations can take place; in these Olympic games, diplomacy doesn’t even have a shot at the bronze.
The Ukrainian crisis isn’t some minor staggering point in mutual American-Russian relations; it is their new ground plan. Vladimir Putin has clearly shown that the European political and security arrangement, as it has developed since the end of the Cold War, doesn’t suit him and that he is determined to change the present framework, even if by force. He has thereby defined the task for Washington, which once more has to solve a problem similar to a problem during the Cold War: not to yield to Moscow in areas ranging from fundamentally to vitally important to the interests of the U.S. and its allies, and at the same time cooperate with the Russians in areas where it can be advantageous for them as well.
The White House, at this moment, is in the key phase of negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program, on which the Russian stance could mean the difference between success and failure. Moscow holds a similar card concerning the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Washington still has an interest in preventing things from resulting in paralysis, or even in a breakdown of the nuclear weapons accords.
On the other side, what price will Putin set for possible cooperation or, it might be better to say, for not outright torpedoing Washington’s aforementioned goals? In all likelihood, that’s precisely what John Kerry attempted to find out in the course of the recent summit meeting. The Kremlin tries to heroically deny its difficulties, but sanctions and low oil prices are tangible, and Putin has good reason to negotiate. Nonetheless, as Kerry stated before the meeting, at this moment it is primarily a matter of “maintaining communication.”
Let’s not expect any potential victory — not even a hint of it — in U.S.-Russian relations, but participation alone counts.