Are things warming up between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin? Photo: AFP / Mikhail Metzel / Sputnik

A “thaw” has appeared in US-Russian relations. The unanimous vote by the United Nations Security Council last Friday extending a cross-border aid operation into Syria from Turkey must be regarded as an important moment. 

It stemmed from a compromise in last-minute talks between the US and Russia. Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told reporters after the vote: “We hope that it might be a turning point that is indeed in line with what [Vladimir] Putin and [Joe] Biden discussed in Geneva. It demonstrates that we can cooperate when there is a need and when there is a will as well.” 

US Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield told reporters: “It shows what we can do with the Russians if we work with them diplomatically on common goals. I look forward to looking for other opportunities to work with the Russians on issues of common interest.” 

Russia did not engage in weeks of talks previously on a resolution drafted by Ireland and Norway, but only to spring a surprise on July 8. Whereupon, negotiations took place the next morning between Thomas-Greenfield and Nebenzia, and lo and behold, the Security Council unanimously adopted a compromise resolution to extend the mandate for cross-border aid operations.

Clearly, Moscow had instructed Nebenzia that the Russian ship was changing course. Yet as recently as June 30, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was hanging tough. After talks with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in Antalya, Lavrov, in fact, attacked the US sanctions against Syria, the use of aid to create new facts on the ground and US attempts to promote separatist tendencies east of the Euphrates. 

Eight days later, however, there was this mood shift. Indeed, on July 8, the special envoys of Russia, Turkey and Iran met at Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, within the so-called Astana process on Syria to give an energetic push to revive the moribund Syria process under UN supervision. 

US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in 2016. Photo: AFP / Hoang Dinh Nam

Kerry pays a visit

The Russian special presidential envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, who participated in the Astana trio’s talks later, told TASS that Moscow and Washington were engaged in talks regarding a US troop withdrawal from Syria and the withdrawal “may take place at any time.” 

Significantly, between Lavrov’s trip to Antalya and the Astana trio’s meet in Nur-Sultan eight days later, he also received a call from the US special presidential representative for climate, John Kerry.

TASS reported on July 2 that “Kerry plans to pay a visit to Moscow.” The report quoted a source in Moscow as saying: “Kerry’s visit is due. Climate issues are on the agenda. A timetable of his meetings is being drafted.”  

Indeed, on July 8, the US State Department announced that Kerry was heading for Moscow on a five-day visit from July 12-15 “to meet with Russian government officials to discuss various means of enhancing global climate ambition.” 

Kerry’s first meeting after landing in Moscow on Monday was with Lavrov, who extended a warm welcome to him, remarking pointedly: “Your visit is an important and positive signal from the point of view of promoting bilateral relations, removing tensions and establishing professional substantive activities in areas where we can find common ground.

“This approach is fully consistent with the spirit of the Geneva summit between our presidents. We stand ready to promote it in every way based on an equal and mutually beneficial dialogue aimed at achieving a balance of interests.” 

Lavrov has elevated the significance of the visit as going far beyond climate issues. Indeed, the Russian side seems thrilled beyond words. The anti-US rhetoric has suddenly been toned down. 

In fact, Moscow’s ambassador in Havana has assessed that the recent protests in Cuba are actually home-grown only, as living conditions have deteriorated because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ukrainian servicemen near an armoured personnel carrier stationed along the front line during confrontations with Russian-backed separatists near the small town of Volnovakha in the Donetsk region on June 23, 2021. Photo: AFP / Anatolii Stepanov

Ukraine tensions ease

Moscow doesn’t agree with the allegation by Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel that Washington instigated the protests. 

Interestingly, Putin penned an article last weekend that is in the nature of an overture to the Ukrainian leadership. He has since annotated his own article and later also vowed that Russia will implement its liabilities concerning gas transit via Ukraine.

This should bring the temperature down on the US-Russia face-off over Ukraine, and, possibly, give the Biden administration some leeway to avoid sanctioning the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project any further. 

Most important, American experts have noticed that the notorious cybercriminal group known as REvil, which US intelligence suspects is based in Russia, has suddenly disappeared from sight online.

REvil is thought to be the group responsible for the huge hack that hit the US services provider Kaseya only hours before the beginning of the Fourth of July weekend. 

The incident provoked Biden enough to call up Putin last Friday and sternly warn him that the US would hit inside Russia if he didn’t act. Curiously, REvil’s sites went down early on Tuesday. 

Wednesday’s Washington Post highlighted the possibility that “the Kremlin bent under US pressure and forced REvil to close up shop … Putin may have decided this wasn’t a fight worth engaging in.” 

Of course, Putin and Biden had agreed at Geneva to launch high-level talks on ransomware. That group is meeting now. Russia has been complaining about the delay. Certainly Biden, an experienced politician, knows how easy it is to pamper Russian vanities.

This dramatic tango will truly sink in only if an extraordinary article written by Lavrov for the Foreign Ministry website on June 28 is taken as the benchmark. The article titled “The Law, the Rights and the Rules” was a lengthy, vituperative attack on the United States’ “contemptuous attitude” toward Russia. It now seems like ancient history. 

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.