The Biden administration likes to say that Russia has become isolated internationally due to its invasion of Ukraine. However, senior officials in Moscow are rarely reclusive in the Kremlin. And now, even the United States wants to talk.
President Vladimir Putin is meeting with world leaders, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country is a member of NATO. Meanwhile, his chief diplomat, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, is traveling around the world, smiling, shaking hands, and taking pictures with foreign leaders — including some friends of the United States.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said he wanted to end months of high-level US diplomatic estrangement with Lavrov to discuss the release of US detainees as well as issues related to Ukraine. No date has been set for the call, but it is expected in the coming days.
Handshakes and phone calls cast doubt on a key part of the US strategy aimed at ending the Ukraine war: that diplomatic and economic isolation, along with setbacks on the battlefield, will eventually force Russia to send its troops home.
Even as he announced the plans for the call, Blinken continued to insist that Russia was indeed isolated. He said the travel of its top officials was merely a damage control and a reaction to the international criticism Moscow was facing over the Ukraine war.
US officials say Russia is trying to bolster its few remaining alliances — some of which are American adversaries such as Iran. But countries that are alleged partners of the United States, such as Egypt and Uganda, also warmly welcome senior Russians.
Having established the case since February that there is no point in talking to Russia because Russia is not serious about diplomacy and cannot be trusted, the United States has acknowledged its need to engage with Moscow as well.
Public outreach to Lavrov, coupled with the announcement of Russia’s “substantial proposal” to release detained Americans Paul Whelan and Britney Greiner, surprised many.
The Blinken-Lavrov conversation would be the highest level of contact between the United States and Russia since February 15, before the Russian invasion, and could pave the way for potential in-person discussions, although administration officials say there are no plans for that.
Presumably, the Kremlin emerged from the news that the United States is now seeking engagement and is likely to delay the process of arranging a call for maximum benefit.
“They are going to go through with it and try to humiliate us as much as they can,” said Ian Kelly, a retired diplomat who served as US ambassador to Georgia in the Obama and Trump administrations. “I don’t think it is in line with (administration’s) general policy.”
Kelly said the call request was “counterproductive to our broader effort to isolate Russia.”
“Other countries will look at this and say, ‘Why don’t we deal with Lavrov or the Russians more broadly?'” he said. “
Already, Western calls to persuade Asian, African, and Middle Eastern countries to stay away from Russia appear to have been ignored as Lavrov travels around the world.
However, Blinken downplayed the importance of Lavrov’s world trip. He said it was a reaction to the cold reception Russia received about the shortages of wheat and grains linked to Ukraine that are now plaguing large parts of the developing world, especially since a UN-backed agreement to free up those supplies has yet to be implemented.
“What I see is a desperate defense game to try to justify the actions of Russia to the world,” Blinken said. “Somehow trying to justify the unjustified.”
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 chose to leave the last meeting of G-20 foreign ministers in Indonesia after hearing a series of complaints from their counterparts about the global impact of the war.
Despite this, there is no sign of Russia being left out of major international events such as the ASEAN Regional Forum next week, the United Nations General Assembly in September, or the Trilateral Summits of Asian leaders scheduled for November.
Russia continues to maintain close relations with China, India, and many developing nations throughout Asia and Africa. Many depend on Russia for energy and other exports, although they also depend on Ukraine for grain.
India has not bypassed Russia despite its membership in the so-called “Quartet” 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 in 2022 so far, compared to just 12 million barrels in all of 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 responded with pleasure to the assertions of Russian isolation by tweeting pictures of Lavrov in various capitals of the world.
Among the photos: Lavrov at the G-20 meeting in Bali with the foreign ministers of China, India and Indonesia. In Uganda with President Yoweri Museveni, a longtime partner of the United States. And in Egypt with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who is also a partner of the United States, every year his country receives billions of dollars in American aid.
Ashok Sharma contributed in New Delhi and Jim Gomez in Manila.