The Cable

Kerry and Lavrov connect after only five days

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke over the phone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Feb. 17 about Syria and North Korea, finally working out a time to chat only five days after Kerry first reached out to his Russian counterpart. 

"The Secretary and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov spoke for nearly half an hour this morning on the situation in Syria and ongoing work at the UNSC to respond to the DPRK's nuclear test.  They also agreed to compare calendars to try to set a first bilateral meeting in the coming weeks," outgoing State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a Feb. 17 statement.

"On Syria, they discussed the importance of the U.S. and Russia using their respective influence on the parties in support of a viable political transition process. The Secretary underscored the urgency of ending the bloodshed, preventing further deterioration of the institutions of the state, and protecting the rights of all Syrians and helping them to resist extremism and further sectarian strife," Nuland said. "The Secretary and FM Lavrov also agreed on the need for close cooperation in New York on a swift response to the DPRK's latest provocative step."

Kerry first tried to connect with Lavrov on Feb. 12, after North Korea detonated a nuclear bomb for the third time. Lavrov had been traveling in Africa but returned to Russia Feb. 14. As of the afternoon of Feb. 15, the two leaders had still not been able to make the call happen. 

"I think there was a sense on both sides that, after he returned to Moscow, that we needed to get this done, and I think he got back Thursday night Moscow time. And Friday was jammed for both guys, so they committed to do it on the weekend," Nuland said at Tuesday's press briefing.

The Russian Foreign Ministry had a different explanation for the back and forth over the phone call. On Feb. 16, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Alexander Lukashevich put out a statement saying that Lavrov had offered Kerry a window on Feb. 14 to chat, but the State Department never responded to that offer. 

"In particular, we proposed to the U.S. side that the leaders of our foreign ministries talk on February 14 at a specified time interval. However, not having received confirmation from John Kerry, we felt that the issue was dropped," the Russians said.

Nuland did not respond to a request for comment on the Russian statement. 

Regardless, the two leaders finally connected and now a meeting is in the works, perhaps during Kerry's upcoming two-week trip to Europe and the Middle East, which begins next week.

"They have agreed that they want to meet, and it's now up to staffs to find a place and a time for them to meet. If it works on the trip, that's great. If not, then we'll keep working for soon thereafter," Nuland said. 

One of the topics that wasn't discussed during the Kerry-Lavrov phone call but will be high on their agenda when they meet is the new Russian ban on American adoptions of Russian orphans, which the State Department has repeatedly criticized. The ban is seen as retaliation for a new U.S. law that punishes Russian human rights violators by restricting their access to visas and their ability to do business in the United States.

That bill, the Sergei Magnitsky Accountability and Rule of Law Act of 2012, was named after the Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died in prison, allegedly after being tortured by Russian officials. The Russian government is trying Magnitsky this week, posthumously, for tax crimes.

 "Instead of wasting time and resources retrying this poor man who has -- you know, who's already passed, the Russian government ought to put its energy into investigating how he died. That's been our view," Nuland said Tuesday.

A Russian reporter at the briefing pressed Nuland to outline the State Department's activity in the case of one Russian orphan, Max Shatto of Midland, Texas, who died under suspicious circumstances after being adopted by American parents and brought to the United States.

"This is obviously a terrible tragedy and it's our understanding that Texas authorities are still investigating the cause of death and that they themselves have not yet made any determination as to how the child died. We obviously take very seriously the welfare of children, particularly children who've been adopted from other countries," Nuland said.

"And we support appropriate access for concerned foreign officials to children who have dual or foreign citizenship. But I want to just underscore that nobody should jump to any conclusions about how this child died until Texas authorities have had the opportunity to investigate."

FARJANA K. GODHULY/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

Kerry’s first trip will be to Europe and the Middle East

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will embark next week on a two-week tour of Europe and the Middle East, with a heavy focus on Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Kerry will leave Feb. 24 on his first overseas voyage since replacing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and will visit the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, outgoing spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement Tuesday.

"He's characterizing this first trip more broadly as a listening tour," Nuland explained. 

It's an ambitious trip that will bring Kerry back to Washington on March 7, two weeks before President Barack Obama is set to travel to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan. But Kerry won't be going to any of those countries, despite some chatter around State that he had wanted to include those stops.

"Given the fact that the government's coalition negotiations in Israel are still under way, the secretary will be traveling there with the president when he visits later in the spring in lieu of making his own separate trip in February to Jerusalem and Ramallah," Nuland explained. 

In Germany, Kerry will be able to reconnect with the city of Berlin, where he lived as a child when his father was a Foreign Service officer there, Nuland said. At Kerry's Feb. 4 introductory remarks to State Department employees, he told the story of how as a 12-year-old, he rode his bicycle into communist-controlled East Berlin and became aware of the stark reality of living behind the Iron Curtain and the value of living in a free democracy.

In Paris, the French-led international intervention in Mali will top the agenda. In Rome, Kerry will attend a multilateral meeting on Syria and meet with the leaders of the Syrian opposition coalition.

"My understanding is that we're expecting eight to 10 of the countries who have been the biggest supporters of the opposition to be there and also for the opposition to be in that meeting, to present its views on how it's going and how the international community can continue to support," Nuland said. "And then there'll be a separate meeting that the secretary will have with the SOC [Syrian opposition coalition] leadership."

Syria will also be high on the agenda in Ankara, where Kerry will also discuss counterterrorism. In Cairo, Kerry will meet with senior Egyptian officials, Arab League Secretary Nabil El-Araby, other political figures, civil society leaders, and the business community "to encourage greater political consensus and moving forward on economic reforms," Nuland said. 

In Riyadh, Kerry will meet with Saudi leadership and also attend a ministers'-level meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council. From there he will go on to Abu Dhabi and then Doha, where Syia, Afghanistan, and Middle East peace will top the issue list, according to Nuland.

Reporters at Tuesday's briefing noted that there are no Asia stops on Kerry's first trip, although Clinton made her first overseas trip to that region and the "rebalancing" of American attention to Asia was a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy in Obama's first term.

"I think were we to add any more stops on this first trip, an already long excursion would be even longer. I think you can certainly expect that Secretary Kerry will visit Asia early in his tenure," Nuland said. "I'm getting tired just thinking about it."

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images