Editor’s note: This article is the fourth piece of a five-part series that examines the bizarre and at times uncanny relationship between John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov. Click to read the first, second and third articles.
It’s become customary for American and Russian diplomats to present each other with symbolic gifts – nothing fancy.
But when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and United States Secretary of State John Kerry tried to get creative, it turned out to be comical, if not embarrassing.
In the spirit of their increasingly casual relationship, Lavrov offered Kerry two big baskets of tomatoes and potatoes before their meeting in Sochi in May 2015. The message wasn’t lost on the American.
Kerry had previously presented Lavrov with two long and ugly Idaho potatoes, from where he maintains a second home, or should I say, a fifth home.
Their exchange took a weird and awkward turn. Lavrov thanked the secretary for the “impressive” gesture and then suggested that the potatoes may have been symbolic.
“The specific potato which John handed to me has the shape which makes it possible to insert potato in the carrot-and-stick expression. So it could be used differently,” he remarked.
Remember, I am not imagining this particular exchange; it’s on the record.
And, if that wasn’t weird enough, Kerry blushed and replied that there was “no hidden meaning” behind the potatoes. Everyone laughed nervously; there was nothing else one could do as Russian-American relations were reduced to potatoes and carrots.
At any rate, with each encounter John and Sergey’s relationship has continued to grow stronger, thriving in a bubble detached from the world of international crises.
But ultimately, Lavrov and Kerry are not their own bosses; they report to Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin.
There’s been no shortage of disagreements over vision, style and demeanour between these two leaders, especially during Obama’s second and Putin’s third terms as presidents.
Long story short: Over the past 16 years, US-Russian relations underwent four different phases.
President George W Bush had a very positive rapport with Putin during his first term, which was reflected in Russian solidarity with the US after 9/11. After their first summit in Slovenia in 2001, Bush’s initial impression seemed somewhat overconfident, even naive.
“I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy, and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul. He’s a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country. I appreciate very much the frank dialogue and that’s the beginning of a very constructive relationship.”
Although US-Russian relations had initially jumped a step forward after the US war in Afghanistan, the relationship shrunk two steps back after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the 2008 Russian military intervention in neighbouring Georgia.
But when Obama became president in 2009, he preferred methodical and institutional relations to personal associations, and generally avoided looking into Putin’s eyes.
The US president dealt primarily with President Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s protege, who kept his seat warm until he could run again, in accordance with the Russian constitution.
The two signed a nuclear arms reduction pact in 2010, and prepared the ground for Russia’s entry to the World Trade Organization two years later.
Things seemed to be going well. Obama was even captured on camera whispering to Medvedev, asking him to tell Putin that he’ll be free to do more on accommodating Russia after his re-election.
But after Putin returned to the Kremlin in the spring of 2012, relations between the Kremlin and the White House began to deteriorate, especially around their differences over Ukraine and Syria.
Russia was unhappy with the way the US and its European allies abused their UN mandate from preventing genocide in Libya to regime change.
Putin saw Obama’s support for change in the Arab world as reckless, and in Ukraine as dangerous, even menacing.
And Putin was determined to stop what he saw as a US drive to destabilise the international state system. China agreed with Russia, but without the hostility.
Eventually, Putin made the decision to interfere militarily in Syria to protect Bashar al-Assad and prevent another regime change.
Obama warned him of another Afghanistan but did nothing to stop him.
In fact, while Obama slapped Russia with sanctions over Crimea, he sent Kerry to Moscow to mend fences over Syria; but without much leverage. Without any leverage.
Since Obama and Putin are very different political animals, with very different styles and demeanours, it was left to Kerry and Lavrov to fix the glitches and stop the haemorrhage in the relationship.
It helped that both presidents seem to trust their world ambassadors, who not only follow instructions, but also think like them.
In short, Obama and Putin set forth US and Russian key foreign policy objectives and trajectory. However, it was Kerry and Lavrov who steered the way forward.
And since John and Sergey have become so close – at times too close for their bosses’ own comfort, they were able to turn crises into opportunities.
Kerry seems to have more leeway with his own president than Lavrov did. When the latter asked the secretary of state to explain Obama’s foreign policy bravado at the UN General Assembly in November 2014, he was told dismissively to “pay [it] no mind”.
I imagine, based on various news reports, their conversation could have gone as follows:
SL: You can afford to say that, John! I would never be able to say such a thing.
JK: Look, speeches are made for public consumption. You know that! We need to focus on diplomacy and getting things done.
SL: Yes, but my boss is not as lenient as yours.
JK: You know; I did give Barack his first debut on the national stage when I chose him to give the opening platform at the Democratic convention that nominated me for president in 2004. He owes me, but more importantly, we think alike.
SL: See, John, I can make no such claim. Putin doesn’t owe me anything. Though, yes, he also trusts me and that’s why I could hold on to the job for a dozen years.
JK: Obama and I both believe in the power of diplomacy and the shortcomings of military solutions. Remember, he was elected on his anti-war platform.
SL: [Rolling his eyes] I believe you and can see the similarities; you love the sounds of your voices. But on a more serious note, you continue to hold a militaristic posture and only changed your priorities from boots on the ground to a worldwide drone policy that is no less militaristic.
JK: [Exasperated] Look Sergey, as any strategist will tell you, drones are used only to cover for strategic rollback. That’s how we cover for our strategic retreat from the greater Middle East.
SL: [Shaking his head] That’s not how it looks from Moscow or from the Middle East.
Kerry: [Aggravated] It is, I assure you, it is. On the other hand, you are getting deeper and deeper into a regional quagmire if you continue to think you can restore Assad through military force. Do you really want confrontation with Turkey, or NATO?
SL: Of course not – we are only trying to restore order on our borders with Ukraine and in Syria, the country you helped to break up.
JK: That’s not true – why else do you think I am trying to work with you to find political solutions? We can build on your new boldness to rein in Assad and others. We don’t and can’t trust the Middle Easterners to resolve their own issues. We must lay down the conditions for ceasefire and political transition between your folks and ours.
JK: The Assad regime owes you – or should I say, you “own” it – after you helped it to survive the war. Assad is your b****h and you must get him to step down for the sake of the order and stability you preach.
SL: Not so simple. Putin won’t go for it. But hypothetically, what can you do for us in return?
Kerry: [With a big smile] I love hypothesis. Now you’re talking.
Coming up in the series on Kerry and Lavrov: How and why the US accommodated Russia.
Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera. Follow him on Facebook.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.