MOSCOW — For several months, high-level U.S. diplomats have been giving Russia the cold shoulder as punishment for its role in the Ukraine conflict.
But no longer.
Two senior American officials — U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, followed by Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland — have visited Russia in as many weeks, giving some Russian politicians a chance to gloat at what they see as a political victory.
“The Obama administration is afraid to remain outside the settlement in Ukraine, so Nuland arrived the moment Kerry left,” Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s lower house of parliament, wrote Sunday on Twitter.
For all the glee, however, it appears that nothing too conclusive has emerged from the visits.
Nuland’s meetings Monday wrapped up without any sign of a political breakthrough, even as she pushed for a greater U.S. role in bringing an end to the crisis in eastern Ukraine that has pitted government forces against Russian-backed separatists and killed more than 6,000 people.
Since the conflict began more than a year ago, U.S.-Russia relations have sunk to their lowest level since the Cold War.
“The overall situation of bilateral relations is depressing, and we believe that the responsibility for this lies with Washington,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said after a meeting with Nuland, according to the Russian news service Interfax.
Nonetheless, Russian and U.S. diplomats view a joint engagement in Ukraine as a matter of necessity to resolve the conflict.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed the United States’ help and noted Monday that the countries found “common denominators” during Kerry’s visit last week, according to comments posted on the Foreign Ministry’s Web site. He also acknowledged that “we do have something to ask” of the rebels “in terms of a more thorough compliance with the cease-fire, although the bulk of provocations comes from the Ukrainian authorities.”
Despite the cease-fire, reached earlier this year in the Belarusan capital, Minsk, fighting continues in parts of eastern Ukraine.
Nuland, who came to Moscow from the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, stressed after her meetings Monday that no one there “has any intention of launching new hostilities.” She said attempts at land grabs were being made on“the western side of the Minsk line” — indicating that it was Russian-backed separatists going for more territory.
But her assurances that Ukraine had no plans to expand its territory militarily did not appear to appease her Russian counterparts.
“So far it seems that the preparation for this kind of action is there,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told the state news agency Tass on Monday.
Russian and U.S. diplomats appeared to be using Nuland’s visit to test each other’s commitment to solidifying the peace accords signed in Minsk in September and in February, with Nuland remarking last week that it was time “that all sides walk the walk, not just talk the talk.”
The conflict has continued to simmer in several areas of eastern Ukraine, particularly near Shyrokyne. The town just east of the coastal, government-controlled city of Mariupol is seen as a barrier to Russia’s creation of a land bridge to Crimea, which Moscow annexed in March 2014. Ukrainian forces cannot retreat from the highlands west of the town without leaving Mariupol unguarded, and the continued fighting claims a few casualties every few days.
Nuland said Monday that representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe need to be able to better police the cease-fire line in areas such as Shyrokyne. She said a requirement to pull back forces under the truce also applies to the Russians and their support for the separatists. She called for better enabling Kiev to send humanitarian aid shipments to the east as well.
The peace process will enter a new phase in the next several days as Kiev and the rebels are expected to convene in four working groups to address the humanitarian, economic, political and security elements of the conflict.
But the process is continuing against a backdrop of several other issues that pit the United States and Russia against each other.
Both remain at odds over Western sanctions against Russia, which the United States has said will be rolled back only once the Minsk agreement is fully implemented. Russia would like to see the sanctions lifted when the European Union reviews them this summer, and certain European leaders, such as Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, oppose continuing them. Although she did not comment on the sanctions issue Monday, Nuland said the United States is working to support the Minsk agreement “in lockstep” with European leaders.
The United States and Russia are also holding parallel talks on other international crises, such as the conflict in Syria. Daniel Rubinstein, the U.S. special envoy for Syria, was in Moscow on Monday. He met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov to discuss that conflict and the threat posed by the Islamic State militant group.