Skip to main content

Why Putin is dictating terms to Kerry on Ukraine

By Simon Tisdall, Special to CNN
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
Ukraine has been riven with divisions for months.
Ukraine has been riven with divisions for months.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Kerry's state department failed to see the Ukraine crisis coming, writes Simon Tisdall
  • He evidently did not believe Russia would be so audacious as to annex Crimea, he says
  • Tisdall: Ukraine has little choice but to seek an accommodation with Russia
  • Unless Kerry raises his game, the terms will be dictated by Putin, writes Tisdall

Editor's note: Simon Tisdall is assistant editor and foreign affairs columnist at the Guardian. He was previously foreign editor of the Guardian and The Observer and served as White House correspondent and U.S. editor in Washington D.C. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

London (CNN) -- High-level talks to defuse the Ukraine crisis, due to be held by the U.S., Russia, the EU and the Kiev government next week, amount to a big personal test for John Kerry after a notably accident-prone first year as U.S. President Barack Obama's secretary of state.

Kerry's State Department failed to see the Ukraine crisis coming and may have inadvertently helped to provoke it. They pushed too hard as the EU moved to cement closer ties with the former Soviet republic. Then, when Ukraine's elected, pro-Russia president was forcibly overthrown, the U.S. barely concealed its satisfaction.

Simon Tisdall
Simon Tisdall

The conviction that Washington deliberately engineered the Kiev "coup" predictably enraged Russian President Vladimir Putin. He decided he would try a bit of direct intervention of his own. The result was last month's annexation of Crimea and the apparent, continuing Russian military threat to eastern Ukraine.

Key international issues

There is a bit of a pattern emerging here.

Take Egypt for example. In November last year, during a Middle East tour, Kerry gave his backing to the military junta that deposed the country's elected Muslim Brotherhood President, Mohamed Morsy, and brutally repressed thousands of his supporters.

Financial leaders face tough Ukraine talks
Searching for tanks on the Russian border
Donetsk protesters demand independence
Kiev issues 'ultimatum' to protestors

Kerry declared that Egypt was following a "roadmap" back to democracy and that Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the general in charge, enjoyed his confidence. Since then, the repression has only gotten worse, and Egyptian democracy has become a bad joke. Hundreds of Brotherhood supporters were sentenced to death in risibly unfair court trials, amid a widening crackdown on political dissent and independent media.

El-Sisi now plans to become president. Kerry has become more critical, but the die is cast.

Very soon, Egypt will have a new dictator to replace former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, only younger and potentially more vicious. This dire prospect is not what the Arab Spring was about, and surely not what the Obama administration intended.

Kerry's judgment has not proved any more impressive in his handling of several other key international issues. He threw his weight behind the Syrian peace talks process after receiving encouragement, ironically, from Putin, who is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's main external backer.

But it seems the wily Russian leader saw Kerry coming from way off.

Moscow continued to aid, abet and arm the Assad regime while the U.S.-backed opposition groups squabbled and split and eventually achieved next to nothing in the Geneva talks. Kerry's plan to discuss a transitional government in Damascus never got to first base.

Out of touch

Kerry invested a surprising amount of personal capital in reviving peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, making optimistic prognostications about his chances of success where so many others have failed.

Perhaps it was a generational thing. Kerry, aged 70, has lived with the Israel-Palestine conflict all of his professional life. When he finally became secretary of state, maybe he thought: "At last, I have my chance to fix this." But he hasn't.

In fact, following the Palestinian Authority's decision last week to seek U.N.-recognized statehood, and the Israeli government's reaction in breaking off most contacts, the situation is rapidly deteriorating again.

Now Kerry faces his biggest challenge -- persuading, or forcing, another bad guy (namely Putin) to back off in Ukraine at a time when the Russian leader seems ever more convinced of American weakness.
Simon Tisdall

Kerry's behavior in all these cases was delusional and out of touch with the realities on the ground, as the Washington Post's Jackson Diehl has argued, saying: "Egypt is under the thumb of an authoritarian general. The Syrian peace talks imploded soon after they began. The Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are hanging by a thread. All along the way, Kerry -- thanks to a profound misreading of the realities on the ground -- was enabling the bad guys."

Now Kerry faces his biggest challenge -- persuading, or forcing, another bad guy (namely Putin) to back off in Ukraine at a time when the Russian leader seems ever more convinced of American weakness.

According to Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former Obama state department official speaking Thursday to the BBC, Putin formed that opinion, rightly or wrongly, when the U.S. ducked military action in Syria last year. Now he appears to believe Washington, and therefore NATO, will avoid a physical confrontation over Ukraine at all costs, and that this gives him a clear negotiating advantage.

Ahead of next week's talks, Kerry could be misreading the situation again. He evidently did not believe Russia would be so audacious as to annex Crimea. He was wrong. Now, judging by recent statements, he is getting it wrong again. He seems to believe Putin is on the point of ordering similar action in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russia separatists have seized government buildings and appealed for Russian armed intervention.

Testifying to Congress this week, Kerry blamed the protests on "special forces and agents" sent by Moscow in a move he said "could potentially be a contrived pretext for military intervention just as we saw in Crimea." While the U.S. favored a diplomatic solution, Washington was ready "to do what is necessary" to maintain international order.

Putin must chortle at such empty-sounding rhetoric. He believes, with good reason, that the U.S. and its allies will not go to war over Ukraine. He probably also has no intention of sending in his tanks, simply because he does not need to.

The direct and indirect pressure on Kiev to bow to Russian demands for "constitutional reform," including some form of federal system and enhanced regional autonomy in the east, is massive and beginning to tell. It is backed up by powerful Russian economic leverage, especially over gas supplies and agricultural exports.

Ukraine is broke and divided. Crimea is lost. It has neither an elected government nor president. It is militarily vastly inferior. And it lacks allies it can rely upon, when the chips are down. Like it or not, it has little choice but to seek an accommodation with Russia. Unless Kerry significantly raises his game, the terms will be dictated by Putin.

OPINION: Egypt's el-Sisi manufactures new dictatorship

OPINION: For many Egyptians, there is no alternative but el-Sisi

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Donetsk's neediest line up for food handouts. There are long queues at the bus station as people try to leave town. There are no banks left open.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1025 GMT (1825 HKT)
Barking overwhelms the thud of artillery fire. An animal shelter is crammed with 1,000 dogs, many orphans of the conflict with owners who have fled or been killed.
October 3, 2014 -- Updated 0751 GMT (1551 HKT)
Reza Sayah looks into why thousands of Ukrainians have left their old lives to volunteer to fight.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
CNN's Ralitsa Vassileva speaks to The New Republic's Linda Kinstler about Putin's motives with Ukraine and China.
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 1436 GMT (2236 HKT)
President Barack Obama speaks at the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 2258 GMT (0658 HKT)
The Commander of NATO forces in Europe says Russian tanks, Russian artillery, Russian air defense systems and Russian troops -- all heading into Ukraine.
September 9, 2014 -- Updated 1258 GMT (2058 HKT)
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 broke apart in the air after it was hit by a burst of "high-energy objects" from outside, a preliminary report by Dutch aviation investigators said Tuesday.
September 3, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
On a country road in eastern Ukraine, a scene of bucolic tranquility was suddenly interrupted by the aftermath of carnage.
September 2, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
In the city of Donetsk, the devastation wrought by weeks of fighting between pro-Russia rebels and Ukrainian forces is all too apparent.
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 0000 GMT (0800 HKT)
CNN's Diana Magnay reports from the front lines in the Ukrainian conflict.
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
A few miles south of the town of Starobeshevo in eastern Ukraine, a group of men in uniform is slumped under a tree.
August 23, 2014 -- Updated 1343 GMT (2143 HKT)
A shopkeeper's mutilated body, relatives' anguish, homes destroyed ... this is Donetsk.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1112 GMT (1912 HKT)
A 20-minute drive from Kiev takes you to a neighborhood that feels more like Beverly Hills than central Ukraine.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 1412 GMT (2212 HKT)
Photos illustrate the ongoing crisis in Ukraine as fighting continues to flare in the region.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1631 GMT (0031 HKT)
Future imports, exports between the EU and Russia are now banned -- but existing contracts continue.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1540 GMT (2340 HKT)
Some contend that larger weapons have come into Ukraine from Russia.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 0925 GMT (1725 HKT)
The downing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 put the pro-Russia rebels operating in Ukraine's eastern region center stage.
ADVERTISEMENT