The Biden administration likes to say that Russia has become isolated internationally due to its invasion of Ukraine. However, Moscow’s top officials have hardly been cloistered in the Kremlin. And now, even the United States wants to talk.
President Vladimir Putin has been meeting with world leaders, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country is a member of NATO. Meanwhile, his top diplomat, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, is traveling the world, smiling, shaking hands and posing for photos with foreign leaders, including some friends from the US.
And on Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he wants to end months of a high-level US diplomatic standoff with Lavrov to discuss the release of US detainees as well as Ukraine-related issues. The call has not been scheduled but is expected in the next few days. Hyperlinked updates.
The handshakes and phone calls cast doubt on a central part of the US strategy aimed at ending the Ukraine war: that diplomatic and economic isolation, coupled with setbacks on the battlefield, would ultimately force Russia to send its troops home.
Even as he announced the plans for the call, Blinken continued to insist that Russia really is isolated. He argued that his senior officials’ trips are purely damage control and a reaction to international criticism Moscow faces over the Ukraine war.
US officials say Russia is trying to shore up its few remaining alliances, some of which are US adversaries like Iran. But countries that are ostensibly partners with the US, such as Egypt and Uganda, also warmly welcome leading Russians.
And after arguing since February that there is no point in talking to Russia because Russia is not serious about diplomacy and cannot be trusted, the US has admitted that it needs to engage with Moscow as well.
The public outreach to Lavrov combined with the announcement of a “substantial proposal” to Russia to secure the release of detained Americans Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner caught many by surprise.
A Blinken-Lavrov talk would be the highest-level contact between the US and Russia since February 15, before the Russian invasion, and could set the stage for possible in-person discussions, though administration officials say they won’t. there are plans for that.
The Kremlin presumably reveled in the news that the US is now seeking a compromise and will likely delay the process of arranging a call to gain maximum advantage.
“They are going to drag this out and try to humiliate us as much as they can,” said Ian Kelly, a retired career diplomat who served as the US ambassador to Georgia in the Obama and Trump administrations. “I don’t think I agree with the general (administration) policy.”
Kelly said the request for a call is “counterproductive to our broader effort to isolate Russia.”
“Other countries will see this and say, ‘Why shouldn’t we deal with Lavrov or the Russians more broadly?'” he said.
Western calls to convince Asian, African and Middle Eastern nations to avoid Russia appear to have been ignored as Lavrov travels the world.
Still, Blinken downplayed Lavrov’s globetrotting. He said it was a response to the cool reception Russia has received over Ukraine-related wheat and grain shortages now affecting much of the developing world, particularly as a United Nations-backed deal to free those supplies.
“What I see is a desperate defense game to try to somehow justify to the world the actions that Russia has taken,” Blinken said. “Somehow trying to justify what is unjustifiable.”
US and European officials point out that Russia has come under heavy criticism for the invasion of Ukraine and the food and energy security shortages that have resulted.
Biden administration officials, including Blinken, noted with satisfaction that Lavrov decided to walk out of a recent meeting of G20 foreign ministers in Indonesia after hearing a litany of complaints from his counterparts about the global impact of the war.
Despite that, there are no signs that Russia will be excluded from major international events like the ASEAN Regional Forum next week, the United Nations General Assembly in September, or a trio of Asian leaders’ summits set to take place in november.
Russia continues to maintain close ties with China, India and many developing countries in Asia and Africa. Many depend on Russia for energy and other exports, though they also depend on Ukraine for grain.
India has not rejected Russia despite its membership in the so-called “Quad” with the US, Australia and Japan. With a long-standing close relationship with Russia, India has boosted energy imports from Russia despite pressure from the US and Europe, which is turning away from Russian oil and gas.
India, for example, has used nearly 60 million barrels of Russian oil in 2022 so far, compared with just 12 million barrels in all of 2021, according to commodity data firm Kpler.
On the other side of the coin, the Philippines, a US treaty ally, this week scrapped a deal to buy 16 Russian military transport helicopters over fears of possible US sanctions.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has gleefully responded to claims of Russia’s isolation by tweeting pictures of Lavrov in various world capitals.
Among the photos: Lavrov at the G-20 meeting in Bali with the foreign ministers of China, India and Indonesia; in Uganda with President Yoweri Museveni, a longtime US partner; and in Egypt with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, also a partner of the United States, whose country receives billions of dollars in US aid every year.
Ashok Sharma in New Delhi and Jim Gomez in Manila contributed