Last week John Kerry went to Moscow to persuade the Russians to play nice with the rest of the international community on Syria. While he would have liked to have them join in the effort to force the Assad regime out of office, his hope was to at least get the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin to not further strengthen their Syrian client. The only bone Putin was prepared to throw Kerry was backing a proposal to hold a peace conference on Syria next month. But within a few days, the Russian contempt for the Obama administration and its new secretary of state was made all too clear with the news that they were shipping advanced missiles to Damascus that would be perfectly suited to threaten any Western ships or bases in the region that might resupply the Syrian rebels or enforce a no-fly zone in the country. In other words, the Russians demonstrated that when it comes to Syria, they have more in common with Iran and Hezbollah than the United States.
This ought to have been understood to be a sobering development for the administration that calls into question not just Kerry’s competence but a strategy that envisions leveraging a reset of relations with Russia into progress on Syria as well as dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat. But as the New York Times reports, Kerry is undaunted by the evidence of his failure and is instead concentrating on making friends with Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov. The result is, as the Times says, a “change in tone” in the relations between the two countries even if it has not actually advanced American interests.
While there is a case to be made for diplomats keeping the lines of communication open, what recent events have shown is that Kerry is not so much keeping the Russians informed of American positions as he has signaled to them that the U.S. is ready to bow to Moscow’s will. The news that, as the Times makes clear, the Russians are well pleased with Kerry ought to set off alarms in Washington.
The premise of the Times feature is quite clear. While Kerry’s predecessor Hillary Clinton worked hard to butter up the Russians and get them to play ball, Putin and his minions were displeased by her occasional willingness to speak up about human rights violations as well as her assertive statements about Iran and Syria. But in Kerry Moscow has found its perfect American secretary of state: a man willing to both appease them on policy as well as one determined not to offend their sensibilities. As the Times notes, Putin and Lavrov like Kerry a lot more than they did Clinton, let alone her predecessor Condoleezza Rice.
Lavrov appears to have Kerry’s number. It is hardly surprising that Kerry, who once embraced Assad as a moderate, would turn out to be a spineless secretary of state on this front. Sweet-talking the secretary and appealing to his delusions about his diplomatic skill have enabled them to double down on their efforts to strengthen Assad without incurring much American outrage. Kerry is so happy with the idea of a conference where he can play Metternich that he doesn’t seem to have noticed that the plans for this conclave are serving to delay any American action to punish Assad for crossing President Obama’s red lines about the use of chemical weapons. And Assad is using the time the Russians have helped buy him well, as his forces have gained considerable ground in recent weeks making it more likely than ever that Obama and Kerry’s predictions about his fall were wrong.
Yet Kerry seems satisfied by what, as one source told the Times, is his rapport with Lavrov. We are told the two have bonded over “their mutual love for hockey and the grace of the older school style.”
But the main result of all this schmoozing is the stark fact that the bottom line here is that the United States has buckled under to Moscow:
Mikhail V. Margelov, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament, said that Russia’s position on Syria had been consistent and that Mr. Kerry had finally accepted it.
John Kerry isn’t the first American to be taken to the cleaners by the Russians, but it’s doubtful that any of his predecessors were fleeced so effortlessly.