Kerry shifts from provocation to diplomacy on Ukraine crisis

Reports also indicate that Germany had no interest in risking its very significant and profitable trade with Russia

Abdallah Schleifer
Abdallah Schleifer
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The demonization of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in the West, but most particularly in both American media and the U.S. administration has accelerated over the past few weeks as the crisis in Ukraine, and most particularly in Crimea over this past week, continued to accelerate.

On March 2, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had denounced the movement of Russian forces into Crimea as “an act of aggression” and had even alluded that “all options are on the table” – and while Kerry was talking specifically about economic sanctions and the U.S. and the EU “isolating” Russia, the phrase “all options” has always implied military action (which the White House backed away from the next day).

On Tuesday, Kerry flew to Kiev to demonstrate his solidarity with the demonstrators in Kiev’s Maiden that had brought down the government of the irresolute as well as the tainted but nevertheless democratically elected President Yanukovich.

Kerry also mourned their demonstrator’s losses (no mention of the Ukrainian police killed by demonstrators) in the days leading up to the flight of Yanukovich, while denouncing Putin for “hiding behind falsehoods.”

Reports also indicate that Germany had no interest in risking its very significant and profitable trade with Russia

Abdallah Schleifer

By the time Kerry made his statement in Kiev, Putin had already held a press conference in Moscow but when Kerry spoke he had not been briefed Putin’s remarks.

The first account of that speech that appeared in the New York Times the following day -Wednesday - but datelined from Moscow on March 4 with a shared by-line of three New York Times reporters, stressed in its headline that “Putin keeps Open Option of Force” but then acknowledged in the first paragraph that Putin’s remark about Russia “reserves the right to use all means at our disposal” to protect Russian speaking Ukrainians, was in the context of Putin declaring that he saw no reason for

Russian forces to intervene in eastern Ukraine (Crimea is in the south.) and that he did not want a military conflict in the Ukraine. That might just reasonably have made a more relevant headline.

Not considering annexation

One had to wait until the 19th paragraph of this report to know that Putin had declared that Russia was not considering annexing the Crimea.

That the Crimea (which few Americans realize is officially an autonomous region) has the right to determine their future but that Russia would never instigate or support “such trends” and alluded explicitly to Kosovo’s Albanian majority to secede from Serbia in the name of self-determination, and implicitly to American military intervention of behalf of Kosovo.

The same article mentioned that Putin, prior to his press conference, had declared the end of large-scale military manoeuvres in Russia close to and along the length of its extended border with the Ukraine. Then, quite curiously, in the very next paragraph the reporters commented that: “there was no indication that Mr. Putin’s move presaged any easing of a crisis that raised Western fears that the region may be spinning toward a broader conflict.”

Follow up

Only in a follow up story later that day from Washington did a Times reporter note that Putin’s assurance that Russia did not plan to intervene in eastern Ukraine “suggested a possible path forward” and that global markets had reacted “with relief and the White House with cautious optimism,” and this time around noted that American officials were encouraged by other aspects in Putin’s remarks as well as “his decision to cancel” the military manoeuvres.

I have focused on the New York Times because it is the best mainstream daily newspaper in America and conceivably the most influential – at least among Democratic party policy makers and increasingly rare moderate Republicans, yet its coverage as well overwhelming number of Op Ed articles on the crisis by experts, have contributed to the Putin demonization.

And then yesterday everything changed, with reports in American and other Western media that Kerry and the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Britain had met with the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and that the talks would continue, shifting to Rome.

Suddenly Kerry was sounding like a diplomat. “The talks were very constructive…the beginning of a negotiation,” and that while finding a solution will be difficult, the situation was better than the previous day.

Careful reading

Obviously the more careful reading of Putin’s press conference would explain this dramatic shift in Kerry’s rhetoric but there were also other factors. Kerry and Obama’s threat of economic sanctions against Russia were meant with the counter-threat by the Kremlin that it would respond with its own counter-measures that could include seizing the assets of significant American investments in Russia.

And perhaps even more telling – when Kerry and the White House had first raised the spectre of imposing economic sanctions if Russian forces did not return to their bases in Crimea, the implication was that this was not a unilateral threat by America: that America was effectively speaking for the EU.


That inference has been deflated with reports whatever steps the UK might undertake in solidarity with Kiev, Britain would not engage in economic sanctions against Russia jeopardizing its favourable balance of trade, as well as Russians making use of the British financial sector and the housing market. Reports also indicate that Germany had no interest in risking its very significant and profitable trade with Russia.

During the crisis, Op Eds were beginning to appear in the New York Times, and even on, suggesting that there were a number of reasons that justified Russia’s analysis of the series of events that have led to this crisis.

To outline that analysis here would require another column, but consider just this – how would America react if the Russian ambassador and a leading figure in the Russian foreign office had conspired with an anti-American opposition party leaders to overthrow the freely elected President of Mexico and whose foreign minister had flown into Mexico City to express congratulations for their Mexican partners in the successful coup d’etat?

Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspondent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC, Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya's Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary “Control Room” and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza...and Jerusalem.”

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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