Agree to Disagree?

U.S. and Russia Can’t Agree on Whether They Agreed to Coordinate on ISIS

The secretary of state has been trying to thaw U.S.-Russian relations, but the Kremlin just won’t play ball. Now he says they agreed to work together on ISIS—and Russia is denying it.

10.22.14 9:45 AM ET

Did the United States and Russia agree to share intelligence about ISIS? Secretary of State John Kerry insists they did. The Russian foreign minister insists just as strongly they didn’t. It’s just the latest indication that Moscow is not on board with Kerry’s efforts to thaw the U.S.-Russian relationship.

Last week in Paris, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had another of their private chats on a park bench after taking a stroll around the garden of the U.S. ambassador’s residence with no staffers present. In a solo press conference after the meeting, Kerry said Lavrov had agreed to increased counterterrorism coordination with Washington, especially on ISIS, a group both the United States and Russia are fighting in Iraq.

“In our discussions today, I suggested to Foreign Minister Lavrov that we intensify intelligence cooperation with respect to ISIL and other counterterrorism challenges of the region, and we agreed to do so,” Kerry said, using an alternative acronym for the group. “And we also agreed to explore whether Russia could do more to support Iraqi Security Forces, and the foreign minister indeed acknowledged their preparedness to help with respect to arms, weapons—they are doing that now and they already have provided some—and also potentially with the training and advising aspects.”

But the next day, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement claiming that Lavrov had not agreed to anything and that Russia would not participate in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS at all, preferring to fight against the terror group on its own terms.

“These issues were raised by the U.S. secretary of state,” the Foreign Ministry said. “S.V. Lavrov, in turn, stressed that Russia has long and consistently been fighting terrorism and providing assistance to other countries in the face of the terrorist threat, including by providing significant assistance to Syria, Iraq, and other countries in the region to strengthen their military capability. Russia will continue these efforts but will not be involved in some ‘coalitions’ created by bypassing the U.N. Security Council and in violation of international law.”

The Russians also pointed out that there used to be an anti-terror working group between Moscow and Washington, part of the presidential commission that was established when the Obama administration was dedicated to a “reset” policy with Russia. But the U.S. government froze all the commission’s working groups in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine.

State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told The Daily Beast that, in fact, Lavrov had agreed to more intelligence-sharing on ISIS, but after the meeting the Russian government changed its tune.

“We regret that after Foreign Minister Lavrov’s positive response in Paris to Secretary Kerry’s proposal on increased intelligence-sharing, Moscow appears to be having second thoughts,” she said. “Our understanding coming out of the meeting in Paris was that the Russians had agreed to this—we will keep having conversations with them about what that might look like.”

Kerry emphasized in his Paris press conference that he was trying hard to find areas where the United States and Russia could work together on world issues and to improve the bilateral relationship, despite  differences over Ukraine. But Harf acknowledged that the United States isn’t really sure Russia is interested in thawing relations with Washington at this point.

“The Russian government has been calling for U.S.-Russian cooperation to address important problems, and we understood that this was an area where pragmatic cooperation would be welcomed,” she said. “But of course cooperation takes two parties, so we will need to understand if Russia does seek to move forward.”

Diplomatic sources say Lavrov has been politely resisting Kerry’s attempts to move toward a more normal U.S.-Russian relationship for several weeks. Following the Crimea invasion, the United States and Europe imposed several rounds of targeted sanctions on Russian entities and shut down various aspects of bilateral cooperation. None of that has convinced President Vladimir Putin to reverse course in Ukraine or consider giving up Crimea. Regardless, now Kerry wants to find a way to move forward.

There is an internal debate at the highest levels of the Russian government over how Moscow should respond to Kerry’s proposals for a warming of relations with the United States. Without the United States lifting sanctions, which the Kremlin viewed as an attempt to humiliate Russia, many in Putin’s inner circle don’t see the benefit in moving closer to Washington.

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The Russian government also isn’t confident that Kerry speaks for the entire administration when he talks about repairing U.S.-Russia relations. The Kerry-Lavrov relationship is really the only reliable high-level communications channel left between Washington and Moscow. But the Russian government knows that real policymaking decisions are made at the White House, and they want President Obama to weigh in personally to show the administration’s seriousness.

“The first question would be, is Kerry acting on behalf of the administration? The second question is, do the Russians believe Kerry is acting on behalf of the administration?” said Paul Saunders, executive director of the Center for the National Interest. “The idea that we should start working together normally while they are still under sanctions is just not something they are likely to accept. They are just not on the same page, and it’s not obvious that they can just come together given all the baggage, even regarding ISIS.”

Kerry’s argument that thawing relations is good for both countries is just not enough to convince Moscow to play along, Saunders said.

“There’s a clear disconnect,” he said. “As much as Russia would like to get out from under the sanctions, they are looking for more than a quiet statement from Kerry that it’s time to work together again. When you are working with a government and you want something from them, it’s not realistic to expect you are going to get that for free.”