On Wednesday the US House of Representatives passed an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Act which prohibits the US from providing arms, training, and other assistance to the neo-Nazi Ukrainian militia, the Azov Battalion. This development was a welcome respite from the relentless push by the war party, a bipartisan group of legislators, government officials and their allies in the media, which seek conflict with Russia over the crisis in Ukraine, to undermine Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic outreach to Russia in May.
Only a month ago, May 12, Kerry, after having met with Russian President Vladimir Putin for over four hours, stood with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a press conference in Sochi where he expressed “President Obama’s gratitude for Russia’s willingness to engage in this discussion.” Reacting to reports that Ukrainian President Poroshenko had pledged to retake rebel held territory by force, Kerry warned that the US “would strongly urge him to think twice not to engage in that kind of activity.”
Lavrov’s own impression of the Sochi meeting reflected, in retrospect, undue optimism, telling a reporter from the state-owned Russian news channel Rossiya 24 in late May that he believed Kerry’s trip to Sochi likely meant “that there is an understanding in Washington that we need to build bridges and end this unfortunate period in our relations.”
Given President Obama’s statements following the completion of the latest G7 summit on Tuesday in Krun, Germany, it would seem that Washington is a long way off from such an “understanding.” Trumpeting Russia’s “isolation” from the G7, the President noted with evident satisfaction that thanks to the EU’s sanctions regime “Russia is in deep recession” and the group stands ready to “impose additional, significant sanctions.” Mr. Obama’s rhetoric at the G7 had a positively Cold War tinge to it, asking of the Russian President: “Does he continue to wreck his country’s economy and continue Russia’s isolation in pursuit of a wrong-headed desire to re-create the glories of the Soviet empire?”
What accounts for the abrupt change in tone between Sochi and Krun? Much of the explanation lies in the fact that in the month leading up to the President’s appearance at the G7, the war party, temporarily set back on its heel by Kerry’s diplomacy at Sochi, rallied.
Three days after Kerry departed the Black Sea region, his Assistant for European and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland arrived for talks in Kiev. That same day State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke spun the meaning of Kerry’s talks at Sochi, presenting them in a far different light than Kerry himself had, declaring that the Secretary “was clear with Russia—President Putin, Foreign Minister Lavrov—about Ukraine and about the consequences for failing to uphold the Minsk commitments.” In this way Kerry’s diplomatic outreach to the Russians was spun as a scolding of the Russians.
The Department’s backpedaling from Sochi, along with Nuland’s arrival in Kiev, was followed by a number of provocative actions on the part of the Ukrainian government beginning, on May 21, with the decision to blockade the pro-Russian enclave of Transnistria. This was followed by the appointment, on the 29th, of former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvilli to the governorship of the Odessa oblast. Given Saakashvilli’s close ties with the US-neoconservative lobby and his long simmering feud with Russian President Putin, his appointment is a near guarantee of more unrest in the deeply divided Black Sea province