Victoria Nuland, U.S. assistant secretary of state, held detailed discussions on Monday with two senior Russian foreign policy officials on the implementation of a ceasefire and planned political settlement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine which had been agreed in February in Minsk.
“Now we have a more direct channel on Ukraine also with the Russian Federation,” Nuland said, adding that “the U.S. goal here is to support the full implementation of Minsk”.
Nuland’s successive visits to Kyiv over the weekend and Moscow on Monday were seen as an attempt to “clean up” after US secretary of state John Kerry, on his first Russia visit in two years a week earlier, had left some with the impression that Washington might be getting too friendly with Moscow.
Following talks with Russian deputy foreign ministers Grigory Karasin and Sergei Ryabkov, Nuland said she had discussed how to get monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe into Shyrokyne, a village where there has been persistent fighting in violation of the truce.
She also pushed to ensure that the OSCE is present along the Russian-Ukrainian border and gets to inspect all convoys crossing the Russian border into Ukraine. Moreover, the U.S. agenda involved how elections can be held in separatist-controlled areas in compliance with Ukrainian law and fully monitored by the OSCE. Nuland also insisted that humanitarian aid should be allowed into rebel-held territory not just from Russia but also from the Ukrainian side.
Washington’s involvement on such a detailed level marks a change after the Minsk deal was hammered out between the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France. It comes amid concerns in Washington that some EU members might shy away from a full rollover of sanctions.
In particular, French and Italian officials have raised the possibility of calibrating the extension to reflect “progress” as the conflict looks less like a full-scale war since the Minsk deal in February.
But Nuland stressed that Washington’s involvement in the Minsk process came “in lockstep with the Normandy powers, with our colleagues in the EU.”
Samuel Charap, Russia expert at International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington, said the U.S. involvement was “maybe a little bit of a shift in tactics, but it is not a shift in policy”.
The timing of the meetings probably reflected concerns that the situation on the ground could deteriorate in the coming weeks and that the political track of the Minsk process appeared to have stalled, he said.
“Direct diplomatic engagement at a senior level had been the missing piece in the U.S. strategy for dealing with Ukraine.”
Parallel to Nuland’s meetings, Daniel Rubinstein, U.S. special envoy for Syria, also held talks in Moscow, fuelling speculation that the flurry of U.S. diplomacy with Russia could be aimed at seeking a deal over Syria.
Kerry said last week after meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin that the growing threat posed by the Islamic State had increased the urgency to find partners in seeking a political settlement in Syria.
Washington argues that it is time for Moscow to reconsider its long-running reluctance to abandon Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, a key ally, as Assad is losing territory to radical groups.
Some Russian government officials on Monday expressed cautious approval of the more intensive diplomatic dialogue with Washington, but rejected suggestions that there could be any trade-offs over Syria and Ukraine.
“We did not discuss that in that context,” said Ryabkov. “And anyway I don’t know how such an exchange could be possible, because the Russian Federation has an absolutely clear and firm position on Ukraine and Syria.”