In May, the new US Secretary of State, John Kerry, became the latest victim of Russia's hard diplomacy.
Soviet leaders used to keep foreign emissaries waiting in order to test their strength and intentions, and on his first trip to the Kremlin as Secretary of State, Kerry was kept waiting three hours before President Putin received him. If Kerry was aware of these precedents, he didn’t show it. His tone at the press conference with Foreign Minister Lavrov (at which he thanked Putin for his 'very generous welcome') was elaborately conciliatory. In substance, too, the visit confirmed what President Obama's April letter to Putin already conveyed: the US seeks to deepen its ties with Russia. The question is how far it is prepared to do so on Russia's terms. The answer will depend not only on Russian policy, but on perception management.
Since taking over from Hillary Clinton (who once called Russian policy in Syria 'despicable'), Kerry has spoken with increasing fervour about US and Russian 'common interests' regarding the conflict. But sending arms shipments to the Assad regime are not a common interest, and resolving that issue was one objective of Kerry's visit. No such resolution took place. What emerged instead was an agreement to convene a new conference on Syria ('Geneva-II') in language consistent with Russia's view that the government of Syria be co-author of the country's fate.
The departure of Assad might still be a 'personal' issue for Kerry, but it no longer appears to be a condition. Fearing as much, UK Prime Minister David Cameron flew to Sochi on 10 May to reiterate that it remains a condition for the UK and, incidentally, reminded Putin that the UK remains a member of the P5 with a policy of its own. Yet neither these concerns nor Lavrov's calls for Iran's inclusion at Geneva appeared to shake Kerry's conviction that 'by working together', the United States and Russia 'have the ability to change the course of…events'.
Russia's signals on arms to Syria do not reinforce these perceptions. Despite entreaties from the US, UK and Israel, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov announced on 28 May that Russia would honour its contracts to Syria. These include the 300km range Lakhont anti-ship missile (which the US Defence Intelligence Agency claims are already in the country) and the S-300 anti-aircraft missile complex, which will be crewed by Russian military 'adviser-instructors' and whose arrival date is a matter of calculated ambiguity. Whether they arrive tomorrow, in 2014 or not at all, they (along with Russia's naval group in the Mediterranean) already constitute a virtual deterrent against external intervention (in Lebanon as much as Syria) and a further point of discord inside the EU, whose arms embargo lapsed at the end of May. But they do not support the scenario that Russia will, in Kerry's words 'use its good offices' to bring Assad to the table.
At about the time of Obama's letter to Putin, a second channel of influence over Washington emerged. The 15 April Boston Marathon bombing gave credence to two key themes of Russian public diplomacy: Russia and the US face a common enemy: the Chechens and Al-Qaeda are one and the same. Obama's brief meeting on 22 May with Russian Federation Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev demonstrated the degree to which the US President has internalized these conclusions. The problem is that they are being strained at operational level. The FSB's arrest of American diplomat Ryan Fogle on 14 May is the latest indication that the CIA feels it has been gulled by the FSB on the Tsarnaev brothers and has begun to pound the pavement in search of real intelligence. Russia is determined that these efforts not succeed.
In the view of independent Russian experts, the Obama administration now faces choices over Syria that it is unwilling to confront. In 2011-12 Washington had the luxury of viewing Syria’s ordeal through the prism of human rights and became increasingly confident that Assad would fall. Now it is looking at a different dynamic, one that seems more likely to strengthen either Iran and Hezbollah or Sunni jihadists. Faced with this realization, Washington, in the words of Fyodor Lukyanov, has chosen to 'appeal to Russia'.
Russia is a country that knows its own interests and pursues them. Its core interests in Syria are to prevent regime change by external means, to maintain Assad’s regime in whole or in part and to maximise its influence in whatever scenario unfolds. Beyond this, it has no solution for Syria or the wider region. It might fear extremism and regional instability, but these are not the fears that drive its policy. The US and Russia might have 'common interests' in this mix, but they do not have common aims. It is probably only a matter of time before Washington reaches this conclusion itself.
James Sherr is the author of Hard Diplomacy and Soft Coercion: Russia's Influence Abroad (Chatham House, 2013).