Kerry in Sochi: Ukraine’s 15 minutes of fame is probably over
In 1968, at an art exhibition in Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, the celebrated artist Andy Warhol was the star attraction. In the programme notes he wrote that “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” What was probably a throwaway comment for the painter has become an internationally renowned catchphrase. While the modern art icon was being grandiloquent, it’s amazing how many non-entities manage to attain his prophesied quarter-hour, or even much more than that.
Warhol, born Warhola, had ancestral ties to both Slovakia and Ukraine. It’s fair to say that the latter has proven his theory repeatedly over the past 18 months. It’s actually incredible how a country that is relatively economically and culturally insignificant has managed to hijack the news agenda for so long. Nevertheless, it’s finally clear that Ukraine’s 15 minutes are over.
John Kerry didn't travel to Sochi because he fancied an early summer jaunt to Russia’s tourist showpiece. He flew to the Black Sea pearl to do business. Serious business. By doing so, he signaled that Washington is finally prepared to leave the Ukraine crisis behind and re-engage with Russia on other matters more pressing to humanity. There are deeper headaches than the future of a corrupt, critically divided, failed state on Europe’s edge.
Minsk, Minsk and more Minsk?
Kerry’s joint press conference with Sergey Lavrov was more notable for what he didn’t say than what he did mention. The Secretary of State spoke about the Middle East and the Minsk agreement. He didn’t refer to Crimea, nor did he bluster about “Russian troops” in Donbas. Indeed, Kerry made it clear that the only solution to Ukraine crisis is Minsk, Minsk and more Minsk. Moreover, he mentioned the Belarusian capital so frequently that an uninformed viewer might have assumed he was in Sochi to participate in a tongue-twister contest. “Max thinks that Minsk is close to Pinsk. That’s Pinsk near Minsk says mixed-up Max,” was the entry I doodled for the putative showdown.
The truth is that everyone is tired of Ukraine, except the diminishing band who made their names from the Maidan crisis. The media has exhausted the subject and politicians on both sides are as frustrated with their own proxies as they are with the “enemy” at this stage. What began as an emotional rollercoaster has turned into a bitter disappointment for everyone in the west. The penny has slowly dropped that all the “revolution” did was replace a bunch of corrupt, albeit elected, rulers with a group of malcontents who are now stealing for themselves and their own cronies. The actors have changed but the script sounds the same to me.
I sincerely doubt there is a news editor from Moscow to London to New York who reacts with anything more than a resigned shrug these days when someone pitches a story about Ukraine. This is not to belittle the suffering in the civil war stricken land, which is heinous. I’m merely stating an uncomfortable truth. As far as powerful people are concerned, Ukraine is yesterday’s fish and chip paper. As IS continue their murderous rampage a few thousand kilometers to the south, Kiev's travails are now a sideshow within a sideshow.
Barack Obama has a year and a half left in the White House and he’s got a clear choice to make about his legacy. Does he want to be remembered as a President who left a smoldering Middle East and a new Cold War behind him? Methinks not. The problem for Obama is that the solution to both those problems first requires rapprochement with Moscow. Kerry’s Sochi visit probably indicates that Washington is willing to radically change its policy to Russia in order to secure the Kremlins’ cooperation on other pressing issues.
In Sochi, Kerry highlighted the need for unity to finalize the Iran deal and to bring peace to Syria through a political transition. He also spoke of the necessity of tacking the so called Islamic State, a bunch of nutters who make Ukraine’s extremists look like trainee hospitality professionals by comparison. Kerry also tied the roll back of anti-Russian sanctions to the full implementation of the Minsk agreement. Never mind that the treaty is so byzantine that it can’t be actually fully executed, the intention was clear. John Kerry seemed to be offering the Russians a deal: let’s agree to disagree on Ukraine and instead engage on other issues (like Syria, Iran and IS) where mutual conformity is possible.
Kerry was also careful to thank Putin for outlining his position in depth and to honor Russia’s war dead after Obama had snubbed the VE Day 70 celebrations in Moscow last weekend. The Secretary of State took the opportunity to slap down Ukraine’s President Poroshenko after his daft comments about retaking Donetsk airport. A couple of months ago, the Americans would have almost certainly denied ever hearing of such remarks. Now, the ear plugs have been removed and Poroshenko’s time in the sun was but a fleeting moment.
Has a deal been struck?
For his part, Sergey Lavrov felt that Russia and the US had now agreed to lean on their ‘sides’ (the rebels and Kiev respectively) to honour Minsk. The wily Russian Foreign Minister also echoed Kerry’s sentiments on the Middle East, fueling the idea that some kind of deal has been made.
Whether or not a gentleman's accord now exists between the US and Russian governments, it's fairly certain that Kerry's Sochi visit was significant. He was the first top American official to visit Russia since before the Ukraine crisis kicked off and the fact that he also met Putin is indicative of a mutual desire for a thaw.
Notwithstanding the tedious Ukraine issue, there is much Moscow and Washington can achieve if they work together. With the Middle East going to hell in a handcart, it's perhaps time for the globe's two military superpowers to leave their differences behind.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.