Kerry Meets Lavrov

The scene is a familiar one. Two wizards parlay over the fate of their yokel followers. The yokels try to follow the converation. But it's no use; they are shut out. No it isn't the Gandalf-Saruman scene out of the Lord of the Rings. It's the Kerry-Lavarov meeting in Paris, with the Eiffel Tower standing in place of Orthanc.  Barack Obama diverted John Kerry to the French capital so he could meet with the Russian foreign minister over Ukraine.

Sunday’s meeting follows an hourlong phone call Friday between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin in which Obama urged Putin to withdraw his troops from the border with Ukraine. The Russian leader, who initiated the call, asserted that Ukraine’s government is allowing extremists to intimidate ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking civilians with impunity — something Ukraine insists is not happening.

Alarmed at the 'threats to ethnic Russians', Putin suggested rewriting the constitution of Ukraine -- without Ukraine in attendance -- to change things to his liking.  You would think such a suggestion would be out of the question. But Kerry is listening!

Lavrov made clear that Moscow believes a federation is the only way to guarantee Ukraine’s stability and neutrality.

“We can’t see any other way to ensure the stable development of Ukraine but to sign a federal agreement,” Lavrov said, adding that he understood the United States was open to the idea.

U.S. officials have been coy about their position on a federation and insist that any changes to Ukraine’s governing structure must be acceptable to the Ukrainians. Ukrainian officials are wary of decentralizing power, fearing that pro-Russia regions would hamper its western aspirations and potentially split the country apart. ...

The plan that Kerry and Lavrov are discussing covers Ukrainian political and constitutional reforms as well as the disarmament of irregular forces, international monitors to protect minority rights and direct dialogue between Russia and Ukraine, according to U.S. officials, who say it has backing of Ukraine’s government.

The Voice of Russia also demands that the new constitution "should clearly state the non-bloc status of Ukraine". And Lavrov says Obama is interested but not just now.  Not only are they going to rewrite the constitution, they're gong to rewrite Ukraine's foreign policy.

A new constitution should clearly state the non-bloc status of Ukraine, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Sergei Brilev's Vesti v Subbotu (News on Saturday) television programme on March 29.

He said this idea had been put forth in Russia's proposals concerning the settlement of the crisis in Ukraine. "This thesis is reflected in our proposals. We are convinced that a new constitution should clearly state the non-bloc status of Ukraine," the minister said.

"The Americans hear this. As to how much they understand this can be judged from their public statements. Last week in Brussels, President Barack Obama said that neither Ukraine nor NATO was prepared for this, and this issue should not be discussed now," Lavrov said, referring to calls for Ukraine's admission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

Gandalf refused to negotiate with Saruman. But clearly Kerry and Lavrov are talking. Lavrov suggests that Obama has been nibbling at the bait for some time but is hesitant to bite, probably because it looks bad. His interest however, is clearly shown by the alacrity with which Kerry changed course in mid-journey to land is Paris.

There are two uncertainties which will emerge from any potential agreement between Kerry and Lavrov. The first is whether Putin will keep his word. The second is whether Obama will keep his word.  The American president's reassurances aren't what they used to be.

Recently president Obama "sought to reassure Saudi King Abdullah on Friday that he would support moderate Syrian rebels and reject a bad nuclear deal with Iran, during a visit designed to allay the kingdom's concerns that its decades-old U.S. alliance had frayed." Which is to say, Obama promised not to enter into a prejudicial agreement.

The Hill notes that Obama's "friends" are now taking nothing for granted. Three of America's oldest allies in the Middle East are watching him like a stranger in close contact with their silver cutlery. "The United States is at odds with its three most important allies in the Middle East ... Under Obama, a chill has settled on the U.S. relationships with Saudi Arabia and Israel, which both opposed U.S. efforts to reach a nuclear accord with Iran. And in Egypt, Obama has an uncertain partner, given the toppling of two governments since 2010."

A note of doubt has crept into the relationship.  For many allies it is now a case of "don't openly doubt, but verify".

But in fairness to Obama it must be asked: why if Obama believes his vaunted sanctions will bring Russia around, is Kerry talking to Lavrov? Why is Putin setting the terms? Why is Obama expected to sell this agreement to Ukraine? And most importantly, if Obama couldn't keep Putin from shredding the Budapest agreement how can he keep him to this new agreement, assuming there is one?

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