Friday 15 November 2019

Kerry faces toughest challenge to outwit Russian bear

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry meet to discuss the Ukraine crisis in Rome
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry meet to discuss the Ukraine crisis in Rome

Gerard O'Regan

When one of his Jewish grandparents rolled a pencil on the page of an atlas – and it landed near the word Kerry in the south-west corner of Ireland – an unlikely link was forged between this country and the US Secretary of State.

John Kerry's original family name was in fact Kohn, but like many Jews experiencing anti-semitism at the turn of the last century, they decided to change it, all on the basis of that rolling pencil.

The world's number one trouble shooter was centre stage this week, talking tough to anybody who would listen. During his visit to Ukraine, up the road, to speak, Vladimir Putin continued to flex his muscles, almost taunting him or anybody else to get in his way.

As US President Barack Obama's man on a mission, Kerry is facing one of his toughest challenges in what has been a long, varied and at times colourful life. The Russian-Ukrainian borderlands remain a tinder box, where charge and counter charge could easily ignite all-out conflict.

On a more basic personal level, the Secretary of State, who is now aged 70, and in a second marriage to a multi-millionairess, has attracted some unlikely American media attention in recent months. He is alleged to have had plastic surgery, including "advanced botox and a face lift".

Born and raised a Roman Catholic, although from strong Jewish stock, he is a former altar boy, who at one point considered becoming a priest. He says he still practises his religion.

Unlike some of his political contemporaries, such as George Bush junior, and Bill Clinton, he fought in the Vietnam War, where he acknowledged he had to kill or be killed, and was subsequently decorated for bravery.

Kerry landed his top job in the Obama government when the much praised Hilary Clinton stepped down. Given the fact he has ruled himself out of the 2016 race for the US presidency – having failed to make it in 2004 – his role represents the apex of a lifetime in politics.

While at one point there were some allegations that his exploits in Vietnam may have been exaggerated they have never stood up to scrutiny. The fact he was not a draft dodger and saw physical combat has provided him with an aura of political legitimacy some of his compatriots could never aspire to.

It has been well documented how Bush junior used family influence and wealth to wangle a safe posting in the home guard to avoid war service – and even Bill Clinton has been dogged by speculation that he deliberately dodged frontline battle.

During his Vietnam soldiering days, Kerry was wounded on a number of occasions and still carries around some shrapnel in his body.

That he has seen the horrors of war up close and personal should uniquely qualify him for his role. But his key objective this week has been to try and come up with some finely tuned diplomatic initiatives to try and outwit an obviously determined Putin, who wants to be a power broker in Ukraine no matter what.

Many of Kerry's personal utterances and beliefs, articulated over the years, show he is no simplistic war-mongering soldier type. Indeed, when his tour of combat duty had ended, he risked his political future by joining the highly controversial pressure group "Vietnam Veterans Against the War".

However, recent reports suggest some of his senior officials within the State Department complain he can be a bit "semi-detached". They maintain he should pay more attention to the mound of background briefing documents that land daily on his desk.

This could tie in with those critics of both himself and Obama, who say both men had taken their eye off the ball when it comes to Russia. The argument is that they failed to fully appreciate the old truism that if you keep tweaking the tail of the Russian Bear it will eventually roar back and bite. In particular, Kerry may have made a big mistake by embracing in too gung-ho a fashion regime change in Ukraine. Little sensitivity – indeed none at all – was shown to the legitimate concerns of the country's Russian minority.

Since the Crimean crisis broke there has been much tough talking from both Kerry and Obama – and early this week they appeared to be snookered. Threats of trade sanctions will be difficult to implement by less than enthusiastic European governments who don't want to risk prompting another continent-wide recession.

Military involvement by the US or NATO in Ukraine is a non-runner. At the same time, the Russians copperfastened their control in Crimea in a classic example of high-level subterfuge and planning.

Yet there was some consolation when Russian sources indicated the Putin government has no intention of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This could, of course, be more double-speak from Moscow.

Meanwhile, Kerry, because of his religious beliefs, is reported to travel at all times with his prayer book and a St Christopher medal. He may well resort to both for some guidance as he tries to chart a way out of a still very sticky situation – both for him and the free world.

Irish Independent

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