MOSCOW >> For Russia, victory came three days after Victory Day, in the form of Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit this week to the Black Sea resort city of Sochi. It was widely interpreted here as a signal of surrender by the Americans — an olive branch from President Barack Obama, and an acknowledgment that Russia and its leader are simply too important to ignore.
Since the seizure of Crimea more than a year ago, Obama has worked aggressively to isolate Russia and its renegade president, Vladimir Putin, portraying him as a lawless bully atop an economically failing, increasingly irrelevant petrostate.
Obama led the charge by the West to punish Putin for his intervention in Ukraine, booting Russia from the Group of 8 economic powers, imposing harsh sanctions on some of Putin’s closest confidants and delivering financial and military assistance to the new Ukrainian government.
In recent months, however, Russia has not only weathered those attacks and levied painful countersanctions on America’s European allies, but has also proved stubbornly important on the world stage. That has been true especially in regard to Syria, where its proposal to confiscate chemical weapons has kept President Bashar Assad, a Kremlin ally, in power, and in the negotiations that secured a tentative deal on Iran’s nuclear program.
Putin, who over 15 years as Russia’s paramount leader has consistently confounded his adversaries, be they foreign or domestic, once again seems to be emerging on top — if not as an outright winner in his most recent confrontation with the West, then certainly as a national hero, unbowed, firmly in control, and having surrendered nothing, especially not Crimea, his most coveted prize.
“Putin is looking pretty smart right now,” said Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute, a Washington research group focused on Russia and the former Soviet Union.
Rojansky cautioned that Putin’s seemingly strengthened position could prove illusory. The economy is in recession and remains dangerously reliant on energy sources, and most analysts say the long-term outlook for oil and gas prices is bleak.
Although Putin may look smart at the moment, Rojansky said, none of this was necessarily by design, adding, “It doesn’t necessarily teach us anything fundamentally about him or how his system works.”
Nevertheless, with oil prices seeming at least to have stabilized after a modest recovery, and the ruble rebounding so strongly from a late autumn collapse that the Russian Central Bank has begun buying dollars to keep it from appreciating further, the Western economic sanctions seem to have fallen short.
Meanwhile, a cease-fire is mostly holding in eastern Ukraine, limiting casualties and vastly increasing pressure on President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine, who has been unable to deliver the increased autonomy for the pro-Russian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk that was called for in the truce agreement brokered by France and Germany.
The subtle shift by the Obama administration reflects a pragmatic recognition that the policy of isolating Russia, economically and diplomatically, is failing, analysts say.
“Americans realized that sanctions against Russia did not quite work,” Viktor A. Kremenyuk, deputy director of the Institute of the U.S.A. and Canada, a research organization that is part of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said in an interview with Svobodnaya Pressa, a news site here.
“They thought Russia had become so much a part of the world market and depended on it so much that it would be enough to frighten Moscow a little to make it surrender,” Kremenyuk said. “In reality, it’s all different. Russia not only withstood sanctions but even introduced countersanctions and demonstrated that it is not going to turn off this road.”
He added: “The U.S. cannot simply capitulate. This is why the policy change begins with statements like, ‘We shall think,’ ‘We shall assess the situation.’ In fact, this is a cautious departure from the policy of sanctions.”
To be sure, the U.S. position on Ukraine has not shifted, and Kerry said at a news conference in Sochi that he had “made clear our deep concerns” including about Russia’s “continued arming, training, command and control of separatist forces.” The administration portrayed the visit as intended to explore new avenues of collaboration, especially in Syria, and Kerry in his remarks again insisted that Russia and Ukraine fulfill the terms of the cease-fire accord signed in Minsk, Belarus.
For the Russian news media and political pundits, however, it was striking that Kerry’s arrival came three days after Moscow’s huge celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany — an event the United States refused to attend and had urged other nations to shun as well.
That snub was regarded by ordinary Russians, even those with little interest in global affairs, as disrespectful of Soviet war veterans and the millions killed in action. Kerry laid a wreath at a World War II memorial in Sochi, in a gesture interpreted as an attempt to make some amends for skipping the Moscow events.
While the Kremlin has hardly been gloating in recent days, it has noted firmly that the subject of Crimea was not discussed at the meeting, and some Russian officials have expressed a sense of victory.
Some officials in Ukraine and in Europe said they believed the Obama administration’s outreach to Russia reflected a rising concern in Washington that the European Union would not be willing to renew the economic sanctions against Russia when they expire in July.
European nations have far more trade and other economic dealings with Russia than the United States does and so they have borne the brunt of the countersanctions barring imports of European goods, including most agricultural products. Some countries like Greece have publicly voiced disagreement with the sanctions policy in recent weeks.
Kremenyuk and other analysts said they believed the major motivation of the United States was to seek Russia’s assistance on other more pressing problems.
“There are some issues in which Americans cannot make progress without Russia,” Kremenyuk told Svobodnaya Pressa. “For instance, Iran and the Iranian nuclear program. Or Syria, where nothing can be done without us. Of course, they will not yell: ‘Help us!’ No way. But within the last couple of years Americans found some areas in the Middle East where they cannot do much, but Russia can.”
Alexander G. Baunov, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, a research group, said that based on a recent visit to Washington he believed that Middle East issues were more important to the Americans than Ukraine.
“It’s clear that Obama is thinking about his legacy, his place in history,” Baunov said in an interview. “Not to achieve the final deal with Iran will be a big defeat for him, so he needs Russia for this.”
Baunov said that ultimately Ukraine mattered more to Russia. “Russia is ready to sacrifice more for Ukraine than the West and the United States,” he said. “It is willing to sacrifice more economically and in lives than the West. Obama realizes Americans won’t do the same.”
Baunov said the Kremlin was probably relieved at the easing of tensions. “Beyond all this anti-Western rhetoric, the Russian leadership and Putin himself are not very comfortable being isolated,” he said, noting that the crisis in Ukraine was rooted partly in longstanding grievances in Moscow over Russia’s interests and values not being respected in the West.
“The main motivation of Russia’s behavior is that they are not treated as equal,” he said.
For Putin, however, success is measured in simple terms, Rojansky said. “Ukraine is a really a regime survival story for Putin at home,” he added. “He is still alive. He is still in control. He is still in power. He has survived.”