WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration likes to say that Russia has isolated itself internationally because of its invasion of Ukraine. Yet senior officials in Moscow have hardly been cloistered in the Kremlin. And now even the United States wants to talk.
President Vladimir Putin has met with world leaders, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country is a member of NATO. Meanwhile, his top diplomat, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, travels the world smiling, shaking hands and posing for photos with foreign leaders, including friends of the United States.
And on Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he wanted to end months of top-level U.S. diplomatic estrangement with Lavrov to discuss the release of U.S. detainees as well as Ukraine-related issues. The call has not been scheduled but is expected in the coming days.
The handshakes and phone calls cast doubt on a central element of the US strategy to end the war in Ukraine: that diplomatic and economic isolation, along with setbacks on the battlefield, would ultimately force Russia to send her troops home.
Even as he announced plans for the call, Blinken continued to insist that Russia was effectively isolated. He argued that the trip by his senior officials is purely for damage control and a reaction to the international criticism Moscow is facing over the war in Ukraine.
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 U.S. partners, like Egypt and Uganda, also warmly welcome top Russians.
And after arguing since February that there’s no point talking to Russia because Russia isn’t serious about diplomacy and can’t be trusted, the US admitted that they were also to engage with Moscow.
Public awareness of Lavrov combined with announcement of ‘substantial proposal’ to Russia to secure release of detained Americans Paul Whelan and Britney Griner surprised more than one.
A Blinken-Lavrov conversation would be the highest-level contact between the United States and Russia since February 15, before the Russian invasion, and could set the stage for possible face-to-face discussions, although administration officials say that there is no plan for it.
The Kremlin likely welcomed the news that the United States is now seeking engagement and will likely delay the process of organizing a call to gain maximum advantage.
“They’re 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 US ambassador to Georgia in the Obama and Trump administrations. “I don’t think that fits with the general policy (of the administration).”
Kelly said the appeal request is “counterproductive to our broader efforts to isolate Russia.”
“Other countries will look at this and say, ‘Why shouldn’t we deal with Lavrov or the Russians more broadly?’ “, he said.
Already, Western pleas to convince Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries to avoid Russia seem to have been ignored as Lavrov travels the world.
Still, Blinken downplayed Lavrov’s globetrotting significance. He said it was a response to the cold reception Russia has received from the Ukraine-linked wheat and grain shortages currently plaguing large parts of the developing world, especially as a UN-backed agreement to release these supplies has yet to be implemented.
“What I see is a desperate defense game to somehow try to justify to the world the actions that Russia has taken,” Blinken said. “In a way, 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 resulting food and energy security shortages.
Biden administration officials, including Blinken, noted with satisfaction that Lavrov opted out of a recent meeting of G-20 foreign ministers. in Indonesia after listening to a litany of complaints from their counterparts about the global impact of the war.
Despite this, there is no indication that Russia will be excluded from major international events such as the ASEAN Regional Forum next week, the United Nations General Assembly in September or a trio of Asia leaders’ summits to be held. 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, although they also depend on Ukraine for grain.
India has not shunned Russia despite belonging to the so-called “Quad” with the United States, Australia and Japan. With a long-standing close relationship with Russia, India has boosted energy imports from Russia despite pressure from the United States and Europe, which are moving away from Russian gas and oil.
India, for example, has used nearly 60 million barrels of Russian oil so far in 2022, compared to just 12 million barrels in 2021, according to commodity data firm Kpler.
On the other side of the coin, the Philippines, a US treaty ally, this week canceled a deal to buy 16 Russian military transport helicopters over fears of possible US sanctions.
The Russian Foreign Ministry happily countered claims of Russia’s isolation by tweeting photos of Lavrov in various world capitals.
Among the photos: Lavrov at the G-20 meeting in Bali with Chinese, Indian and Indonesian foreign ministers; 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 American aid each year.
Ashok Sharma in New Delhi and Jim Gomez in Manila contributed.