Lavrov-Kerry Zurich Meeting : Russia-US Step Up Cooperation on Security Issues

By Peter Korzin

The situation in Syria, in Ukraine, the North Korean nuclear problem, as well as a number of bilateral issues were in focus of the meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry in Switzerland’s Zurich on January 20 in Zurich.

The agreement to meet and hold talks at foreign chiefs level was reached following the telephone conversation between Russian and U.S. Presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama on January 13.

Two days later, quick arrangements were made for a meeting between Russian Presidential aide Vladislav Surkov and Victoria Nuland, the Assistant Secretary of State at the U.S. Department of State. Several hours after the meeting between Nuland and Surkov, the American University in Washington, D.C. played host to Daniel Fried, the State Department’s Coordinator for Sanctions Policy, who stated that if the Minks Agreements were observed, sanctions on Russia might be lifted as early as 2016. A UN mission tasked to assess stabilization in the Donbass will start its work on January 23.

A new «reset» in the U.S.-Russian relationship is possible, «depending on what the U.S. will get for it», former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a televised Democratic Party presidential debate on January 17.

Answering a journalist’s question on her relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Democratic presidential frontrunner described it as «interesting» and «respectful».

It all created a quite favorable background for the Lavrov-Kerry Zurich meeting on January 20.

Of course, the main attention was drawn to Syria in the light of the inter-Syrian consultations due to be held in Geneva on January 25. The ministers discussed all aspects of the Syrian settlement in line with United Nations Security Council resolution 2254. They include the launch of intra-Syrian talks, anti-terror efforts, the political process and the humanitarian situation. Lavrov said that the main topic of conversation with Kerry was «coordination», primarily about terrorist organization, which would be left out of the political process as well as a ceasefire that is envisioned to take effect once the negotiations begin.

The foreign chiefs exchanged opinions on lists of terrorist organizations to be kept out of broad conflict management process. Differences over which Syrian opposition groups should be labeled terrorists and barred from the negotiations and the ceasefire have led to concerns that the talks may have to be postponed. Russia, Iran and Syria have immense differences with Saudi Arabia, other Arab states, the United States and Europe over which opposition groups should be considered terrorists and therefore excluded from an 18-month political transition process the U.N. has endorsed. One dispute is over the groups Ahrar-as-Sham and Jaish al-Islam. Russia and Syria consider terrorists; Saudi Arabia, the United States and others view as legitimate opposition groups. Kerry will be visiting Saudi Arabia this weekend in order to pursue a consensus on the list.

According to the UN resolution, the transitional government should be formed in Syria and work on the new Constitution should start within six months after the beginning of the talks. Free and fair elections should be held in Syria no later than within 18 months. The document also stipulates that the ceasefire should come into effect immediately after the Syrian government and opposition begin the implementation of the process of political reforms. The both parties said they hoped to meet the January 25 deadline for the talks on Syria to kick off in Geneva.

The United Nations does not intend to send invitations for the talks on the Syria crisis unless there is an agreement on the line-up of participants among Syrian oppositionists. It would send them only when the countries which initiated the process of the International Syria Support Group came to agreement about who in the opposition should be invited. That’s why Lavrov and Kerry meeting was an event of crucial importance for the fate of Syria’s peaceful conflict management as they tried to resolve the differences over who is eligible to join U.N.-mediated peace talks for Syria due to begin next week. Those differences have threatened to delay the start of the negotiations.

Lavrov and Kerry discussed plans for the negotiations that the U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, hopes to convene in Geneva on January 25 and «the importance of maintaining progress toward a diplomatic solution to the crisis». The both sides said they did not support a delay in the talks. «We do not have any kind of thoughts about changing the beginning of the talks from January to February», Lavrov told reporters. «This is the position of Russia and the USA». 

Kerry and Lavrov also discussed the situation in Ukraine and compared notes on how to speed up the full implementation of an agreement to end hostilities in the east of the country. The two also discussed possible responses to North Korea’s latest nuclear test.

Early 2016 is the time of big challenges and intensive diplomatic activities to address them. With remaining differences to divide them, Russia and the US have made important step forward on January 20. The parties are joining efforts to come up with a draft of UN resolution on Syria and achieve progress to overcome the stalemate in Ukraine. The both sides express the readiness to cooperate in other areas of mutual concern. With the plans to isolate Russia internationally almost forgotten, the two great powers have concentrated their efforts on achieving common goals to address common challenges and that’s a very positive turn of events.