Victoria Nuland’s Mission to Moscow

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Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland visited Moscow earlier this week for high-level bilateral talks with senior Russian officials. She met with various senior officials, including Presidential Assistant Yury Ushakov, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and Deputy Chief of Staff to President Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Kozak.

Nuland, a seasoned diplomat who played an influential role in shaping US policy toward Russia under the Obama administration, has previously been barred by the Kremlin from entering Russia. Then, in October, Moscow agreed to lift the targeted sanctions against Nuland; in return, the US authorities granted a visa to Konstantin Vorontsov, acting deputy director of the non-proliferation and arms control department of the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Nuland has long been viewed with disfavor by the Moscow political establishment, which sees her as one of the main drivers of the events of the 2014 Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine, not to mention her perceived influence over the government of the former president. Ukrainian Petro Poroshenko. Most recently, Nuland’s reckless essay in the summer of 2020 Foreign Affairs, “Pinning Putin” has aroused great consternation on the part of Russian commentators and politicians. She said that the 2020 elections would give the United States the opportunity to “step out of defense” and “seize the moment of renewal at home and stagnation in Russia to reach out again. … the Russian people must know that Washington and its allies are giving it [Putin] a choice.”

Why, given long-standing perceptions of hostility and bad faith, did the Kremlin guarantee Nuland a state visit with not one, but three senior Russian officials? “It is always a great privilege to have an adversary who embodies everything you subscribe to him”, Fyodor A. Lukyanov, editor of the newspaper Russia in world affairs and Chairman of the Presidium of the Foreign and Defense Policy Council, said National interest. Nuland is a “person who truly symbolizes everything Russia blames the United States for,” Loukyanov added.

Dmitry Suslov, deputy director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the Graduate School of Economics of the Moscow National Research University, said National interest that the steps taken to accommodate Nuland’s visit are “fully consistent with the logic of a manageable confrontation.” Suslov drew a parallel with the previous Biden-Putin summit in Geneva, noting that the two met face to face despite Biden’s “nasty remarks” about Russia and Putin in order to mitigate the further escalation of US-Russian tensions. According to sources familiar with the thinking of Kremlin officials, the meeting was sparked by the perception that Nuland is not only a distinguished career diplomat, but also wields considerable influence within the White House. The Russian Foreign Ministry declined to comment on this story.

How successful were the talks? The two sides did not appear to make any progress in resolving the ongoing dispute over embassy staff. In addition, Ryabkov warned that “there is a risk of escalation of tensions” and that Moscow does not rule out a complete freeze of the work of the diplomatic missions of the two countries. In the week leading up to Nuland’s trip, a bipartisan group of US senators urged the Biden administration to expel up to 300 Russian diplomats if Moscow does not issue more diplomatic visas to compensate for its policy of banning the US embassy in Moscow to hire local residents. .

Suslov said the current dispute over embassy recruitment practices is just the latest symptom of a larger crisis plaguing bilateral diplomatic ties. Moscow, Suslov said, is making diplomatic normalization conditional on the return of Russian property seized under the Obama administration, a demand the Biden administration rejects. Likewise, Suslov does not believe that the Russian side will comply with Washington’s demand to lift its restrictions on the staffing practices of the US Embassy. “Basically I think the stalemate will continue,” he said. Lukianov added that the current diplomatic crisis is a natural reflection of the strained bilateral relations between Moscow and Russia. “The diplomatic relationship has to match the real relationship,” he said. “And that’s why I don’t think we can expect any significant progress on [diplomatic] missions before you get some sort of breakthrough on everything else. “

Kozak, who was named the Kremlin’s first negotiator on Ukraine in 2020, adopted a more optimistic tone. The senior Russian politician praised what he described as a “deep and constructive dialogue on resolving the conflict in south-eastern Ukraine”, adding that “it has been confirmed that the Minsk accords remain the only basis for resolving the conflict “. Kozak claimed that Nuland “confirmed” what he called the American position taken by Joe Biden at the Geneva summit: namely that the territorial dispute on Ukraine’s eastern border cannot be resolved without granting a ” special »autonomous status to the breakaway region of Donbass. . ”

The US Embassy tweeted Nuland’s upbeat summary: “We had a productive discussion with Dmitry Kozak about our common interests, as well as those of Ukraine, France and Germany, in the full implementation of the Minsk agreements and the restoration of peace, stability and Ukrainian sovereignty in the Donbass.

Observers in Moscow have noted that the Biden administration has taken a surprisingly berated approach towards Ukraine, delaying Kiev’s continued demands for a roadmap to NATO membership and dismissing Volodymyr Zelensky’s efforts to secure Washington’s help to revise the Minsk accords. “Contrary to expectations, Biden is much colder towards Ukraine than he could possibly be,” Lukyanov said.

But Russian experts remain concerned that Washington and Moscow are still talking to each other on the Donbass. “I largely agree”, says Suslov, “with these Russian experts who claim that the United States is pretending to be in the Minsk accords, because the implementation of the Minsk accords would be a victory for Russia. – a resolution of the Ukrainian conflict on Russia terms, and would entail substantial limitations on Ukrainian foreign policy, and jeopardize the full-fledged pro-Western orientation of Ukraine … thus, the Biden administration does not is not interested in the effective implementation of the Minsk accords. Nonetheless, Suslov maintains that the Biden administration cannot explicitly reject the Minsk format as it could engender “a further escalation into a new full-fledged war in the east of Ukraine ”, a potentially bigger and more destructive war than the bloody skirmishes of 2015.

Nuland’s meeting with Ushakov is the most fuzzy of his three meetings, with neither side publicly disclosing details of their discussion. Noting that Uschakov is one of those responsible for planning Putin’s summits, Suslov said the two “most likely” discussed “other interactions at the presidential level between Russia and the United States.” Speculation has grown that Nuland’s state visit was in part intended to lay the groundwork for a potential second Putin-Biden summit. But a second presidential summit wouldn’t accomplish much, Lukyanov said. “I don’t see any agenda for this meeting. To have a continuation [to Geneva], we would need something completed from the first… I don’t think we can come up with a reasonable list of issues that Putin and Biden could discuss.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki called the state visit “constructive” and “productive,” echoing Nuland’s own characterizations of the trip. The Kremlin also adopted a cautiously optimistic tone in its assessment after the meeting. “I can’t divulge everything, it was closed-door talks after all,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said. “The only thing I can say is probably that there has been progress on some issues. Not a resolution of these problems, not a elimination of the problems. But some elements of progress.

Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National interest.

Image: Reuters.


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