Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia H Kushlis

Even during the darkest days of the Cold War, leaders of the US and the Soviet Union met to discuss areas of agreement and disagreement to keep international conflicts from escalating out of control. 

Such was Secretary John Kerry’s recent meeting with Vladimir Putin in Sochi – the intent of which, I think, was badly mischaracterized in Dale Herszenhorn’s report in the New York Times May 16, 2015.  The headline of that article was “Kerry’s Visit Marks Diplomatic Victory, and Affirmation, for Putin.”

Herszenhorn’s sources? 

Spokesmen – or quasi-spokesmen – for the Kremlin.  Only many paragraphs down does he describe the reason for the visit from the US government perspective which he took from a post-meeting press conference with Kerry – namely a discussion of Middle East issues which the US and Russia are not surprisingly, for the most part but not entirely – at odds, and almost incidentally a warning from Kerry to Putin regarding Russia’s “continued arming, training, command and control” of separatist forces in Ukraine.     

Please New York Times, you can do better than this.  The tone and slant of the article is of “victory” for Putin at the expense of the U.S.  One could easily and equally argue that the article should have been headlined “Russian experts close to the Kremlin paint Kerry’s visit to Sochi in best possible terms – for Putin.”  Or “Making mountains out of mole-hills, the Russian propaganda machine paints a far rosier picture of Putin’s supposed “triumph” than it really is.”

Far from a Summit

Let’s face it, a low-key Secretary of State visit to a President of another country – even Russia – at an offsite retreat is normally not headline news nor should this one have been described as such.  Slow news day in Moscow? Did Moscow-based Herszenhorn not talk with US Embassy officials who might have helped him write a more balanced story?  Was this yet another failure of US public diplomacy?  Did no New York Times journalists accompany Kerry on this latest trip? What’s the back story here?    

It’s my understanding that the US government is well aware that the Russians are using the current ceasefire in Ukraine to resupply and bolster separatist and Russian forces operating in that country’s East.  This at least according to General Philip Breedlove’s most recent assessment – and one which has credence elsewhere in the US government. Now Breedlove is the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO Forces with plenty of intelligence data at his disposal and in his April 30 press briefing he observed that the combined Russian and separatist forces could begin hostilities again in the near future.  I would not discount this assessment.

In response to the Russian grab of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the US substantially upped its commitment to European defense over the past year especially for building infrastructure and capabilities in NATO’s East.  As a part of this, NATO exercises have been held in the Baltic in recent months and rapid-response NATO military exercises are planned for the region in June in conjunction with several non-NATO member partners including Sweden and Finland, countries which are having their own problems with Russian military incursions.    

Meanwhile discussion still continues in the US and Europe about how best to help Ukraine defend itself.  My guess is that much hinges on Russia’s next steps:  this may have been a part of Kerry’s warning to Putin but not mentioned in the press conference.

Face Saving or Grasping at Straws?

If Putin’s continued hold on power in the Kremlin is portrayed as a triumph for Russia by his supporters then so be it.  Saving face is important in diplomacy as well as life in general.

But if the Kremlin really thinks that continued aggression in Ukraine and its threatening behavior elsewhere in Europe can proceed without a price, perhaps it needs to think again.  As I’ve written here before and will likely do so again, the more Russia tries to change the equation in Europe and threatens its neighbors militarily and by other means, the likelier it will backfire.          

Would the Kremlin’s propagandists have painted such a visit by a US Secretary of State as a “triumph” even last year?   I doubt it.  This too rosy assessment, in my view, is simply grasping at straws.  It’s unfortunate that the New York Times Moscow correspondent failed to get it.