Phone calls between relatively low-level diplomats are normally not newsworthy. But Monday's conversation between U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin on the simmering conflict in Ukraine is an exception. The bilateral nature of the conversation and its timing amid mounting claims of cease-fire violations from the Ukrainian government and separatist forces makes it uniquely significant. Moreover, it reaffirms that the evolution of the Ukrainian conflict - whether toward a settlement or toward escalation - will be most strongly shaped not by Kiev but by the actions of and relationship between Moscow and Washington.
Since the Ukrainian crisis started nearly 18 months ago, two negotiation formats in particular stand out among numerous talks and meetings. The first is the Minsk talks between representatives from the Ukrainian government, the pro-Russia separatists and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which address the conflict on a tactical level. The other is the Normandy talks between representatives from Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France, which consider the conflict on a broader, political level. Notably absent from both talks, despite being a major political, economic and security player in Ukraine and the broader standoff between Russia and the West, is the United States. Washington has been diplomatically active in the conflict, but U.S. and Russian officials have met at various times only on an ad hoc basis.
However, this practice may have changed over the weekend, when Russian Presidential Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov said in an interview that Russia and the United States had come to an agreement to set up a "special bilateral format" of talks between the two countries - talks that would involve Nuland and Karasin. In explaining the formal announcement, Ivanov said that expanding the Normandy format to include the United States would simply be too "risky," adding that the two countries would coordinate talks on Ukraine bilaterally "for the time being." Thus the phone call between Nuland and Karasin took place to discuss the implementation of the Minsk agreement and the constitutional reform process in Ukraine, with further discussions likely to follow.