With Summit’s Collapse, Now Russia is Kerry and Hagel’s Problem

Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel attend a meeting witt their Russian counterparts at the State Department on Friday.

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

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Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel attend a meeting witt their Russian counterparts at the State Department on Friday.

As Obama and Putin 'take a pause' in their relationship, Kerry and Hagel huddle with their Russian counterparts in Washington to tackle the growing tension between the two nations. By Stephanie Gaskell

With President Obama in a standoff with Russian President Vladimir Putin over granting asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met with their Russian counterparts in Washington Friday to try to repair the fragile alliance and work towards an end to the war in Syria.

The Snowden case is among a growing number of issues that the White House and the Kremlin disagree on. Before the four-hour closed-door meetings with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, Kerry told reporters, “it’s no secret that we have experienced some challenging moments and obviously not just over the Snowden case.”

“We will discuss these differences today, for certain, but this meeting remains important above and beyond the collisions and the moments of disagreement. It is important for us to find ways to make progress on missile defense, on other strategic issues — including Afghanistan, Iran, on North Korea and Syria,” he said. Both Kerry and Lavrov expressed support for the Geneva II conference on Syria, now pushed to next month.

“One thing I would emphasize is that on Syria,” Kerry said, “while Sergei and I do not always agree completely on responsibility for the bloodshed and some of the ways forward, both of us and our countries agree that to avoid institutional collapse and dissent into chaos, the ultimate answer is a negotiated political solution.” Through an interpreter, Lavrov said, “Syria indeed is at the top of our agenda. Our goal is the same.”

Obama put a chill on U.S.-Russian relations when he canceled a summit with Putin after the Russian government granted asylum to Snowden despite calls to bring him to the U.S. for prosecution over the leaks. But Obama said the Snowden case was just the latest in a series of disagreements with Russia — and with Putin in particular.

“I think there’s always been some tension in the U.S.-Russia relationship after the fall of the Soviet Union,” Obama said during a press conference Friday afternoon. “There’s been cooperation in some areas, there’s been competition in others. It is true that in my first four years in working with [former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev] we made a lot of progress.”

Obama clearly misses Medvedev. He pointed to several things the two leaders were able to accomplish before Putin returned to power last year, including the Start II treaty, cooperation on Iran sanctions, help supplying U.S. troops in Afghanistan and getting Russia into the World Trade Organization.  

“So there’s been a lot of good work that has been done and that is going to continue to be done,” Obama said. “What’s also true is that President Putin – who was prime minister when Medvedev was president – came back into power, I think we saw more rhetoric on the Russian side that was anti-American, that played into some of the old sterotypes about the Cold War contest between the United States and Russia and I’ve encourage Mr. Putin to think forward as opposed to backwards on those issues, with mixed success. I think the latest episode is just one more in a number of emerging differences that we’ve seen over the last several months around Syria, around human rights issues, where it is probably appropriate for us to take a pause, reassess where it is that Russia’s going, what our core interests are and calibrate the relationship so that we’re doing things that are good for the United States, and hopefully good for Russia as well but recognizing that there are just going to be some differences and we’re not going to be able to completely disguise them. And that’s ok.”

It was under that backdrop that Hagel and Kerry’s “2+2 meeting” with Lavrov and Shoygu went on as scheduled on Friday, as the four leaders try to mend the rocky relationship between their bosses. It was the first time the two countries held such a meeting since 2008.

“The relationship between the United States and Russia is, needless to say, a very important relationship and it is marked by both shared interests and at times colliding and conflicting interests. I think we’re all very clear eyed about that,” Kerry said. “Sergei Lavrov and I are old hockey players and we both know that diplomacy, like hockey, can sometimes result in the occasional collision. So we’re candid — very candid — about the areas in which we agree but also in the areas in which we disagree.”

Lavrov said the two nations “are united by a shared responsibility” and urged everyone to “work as grown-ups.” But he also warned nations not to “impose forced solutions,” and pointed to Egypt as an example. “We’ve seen examples in the past and we see that they’re not working,’ he said.

The Russian foreign minister also took a dig at the U.S. over the unrest in Egypt. “We must prevent destabilization of the global situation. We must prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We need to ensure peaceful settlements of all crises by the global community and avoid attempts to impose forced solutions,” he said. “We’ve seen examples in the past and we see that they’re not working,’ he said, pointing to the deteriorating situation in Egypt. “Of course, we’ll have disagreements,” Lavrov said, but “we are united by a shared responsibility.”

Senior administration officials told reporters after the meetings that Snowden “did not dominate the agenda” and “the tone of the whole set of meetings was positive and constructive throughout.” The officials said Hagel and Shoygu, who met face-to-face for the first time on Friday, also pledged to “do more military operations together.”

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