U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had what sources are describing as constructive talks in their first face-to-face meeting in Berlin since Kerry was confirmed as Hillary Clinton's replacement. While there were no major breakthroughs on any of the contentious issues in the U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship, the two men seemed to establish the basis for a good working relationship. This will be important if any vestige of the Obama administration's reset of relations with Russia is to endure, given the lack of any strong personal connection between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama. Indeed, Obama is not scheduled to even meet with Putin until September, and then only in the context of the St. Petersburg G-20 summit. Given that there is "no program for a new reset," in the words of Alexey Pushkov, the head of the foreign relations committee of the Duma, it will be up to Kerry and Lavrov to keep up the old program.
There are some indications that cautious optimism may be in order. From his time as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry has been a strong proponent of diplomatic engagement. He is known as someone who enjoys the art of negotiation -- of finding a way to a deal. In assessing his voting record in the Senate, China's People's Daily concluded that the new secretary of state puts more of an emphasis "on coordination rather than confrontation in foreign relations.” Kerry's strong advocacy of the New START agreement in the Senate was appreciated in Moscow, where he was seen, in contrast to many other U.S. legislators, as someone who was interested in pursuing better relations with Russia. Kerry has also been measured in his language and tone. While he has never shied away from defending U.S. interests or advancing American values, he has tended to be moderate in his rhetoric and willing to engage in dialogue rather than sermonizing.
This latter point is important given the Russian perception that Clinton, during her tenure as secretary of state, was more willing to take a public hard line when disagreements arose with Moscow. Putin himself "dueled" with Clinton on several occasions, beginning with the aftermath of the 2011 Duma elections, when Putin blamed the rise of a protest movement on Clinton having sent a “signal" to disaffected elements inside Russia. In one of her last major speeches as secretary, Clinton took aim squarely at a foreign policy project that is near and dear to Putin, the proposal to create a "Eurasian Union" linking Russia with some of the other post-Soviet states, describing it as an attempt to re-Sovietize the region and pledging that America would take steps to prevent this project from coming to fruition. In addition, Clinton and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice were not shy about publicly condemning what they saw as Russia's active support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In the aftermath of public criticism from Clinton, Lavrov frequently characterized her position as "disrespectful" and intimated that her harder line on Russia was designed to "woo her voters and those of the Democratic Party" by displaying the requisite degree of toughness with Moscow.