FLASHBACK: Russian spy chief visits Washington amid Ukraine talks


© RIA Novosti/Alexey Nikolskiy

Alexander Bortnikov

The world is watching as the cease-fire in Ukraine progresses on shaky ground and France and Germany lead a spate of negotiations. However, Moscow's eyes are on Washington, where one of Russia's most powerful men — Alexander Bortnikov, director of the Federal Security Services, or FSB — arrived Wednesday.

The same day, Kiev took another important step in implementing the cease-fire when it withdrew its forces from the eastern Ukrainian city of Debaltseve, a key location along the demarcation line where heavy fighting was still taking place. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the cease-fire between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatist forces is largely being observed across the front line except in Debaltseve, which Lavrov called the "cauldron."

Even as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko continued to deny that Russian-backed separatists had encircled Ukrainian troops in Debaltseve, the Ukrainian forces' retreat from the city was effectively a recognition by the Ukrainian leader that he had no choice but to give into the demands of Russia and his European counterparts. These parties were not about to see the Minsk agreement fall apart because of one battle where the separatists clearly had the upper hand.

This comes after another series of talks between the top players. On Sunday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande held a conference call with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Poroshenko. Merkel, Poroshenko and Putin then held another conference call Tuesday, and on Wednesday, all four leaders held yet another call. Russia understands that the European heavyweights are desperate to prevent an escalation of the crisis in Ukraine. Continued progress on the cease-fire gives Moscow more room to negotiate with the Europeans toward a further de-escalation.

But this doesn't solve Russia's primary concern: the United States. Russia has become increasingly vocal about its fear that the United States will deliver lethal weapons to Ukraine. While in Hungary on Tuesday, Putin said that Russian intelligence services had discovered that the United States had already started delivering weapons, though he did not specify whether it was providing lethal aid. Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin said Wednesday that delivery of lethal weapons from the United States to Ukraine would breach the Minsk agreements, and Kiev and Washington would take the official blame.

While the Europeans, Ukraine and Russia may have a fragile understanding, Moscow needs its own agreement with Washington to avoid escalating tensions. U.S. President Barack Obama has not revealed his strategy on the issue.

The arrival of Russia's spy chief in Washington creates new intrigue. Bortnikov is one of Russia's most influential men, and since the crisis in Ukraine began, he has reportedly been one of Putin's top confidants. The intelligence chief rarely travels and had not been to the United States in his seven years as FSB director. His predecessor, Nikolai Patrushev, was and still is a frequent visitor to Washington.

Bortnikov cannot travel to EU countries or Canada because he is on their sanctions list, but he is notably absent from the U.S. list. This means that someone in the United States considers him a serious negotiator.

Officially, Bortnikov is in the United States for two days to attend the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. There are no reports that he will attend any other talks while he is in the country, but we would be surprised if his agenda did not include sideline meetings. Reports of Bortnikov's travels did not even emerge until the FSB published a press release announcing he was already in the United States. The release specifically mentioned that Bortnikov had been invited by the U.S. State Department and the White House.

The decision to ask Bortnikov to the United States just as the cease-fire is starting to settle into place is critical. Putin trusts very few people to speak to the United States on his behalf — Bortnikov being one of them. Moreover, as head of the FSB, Bortnikov knows the ins and outs of Russia's support for separatists and intelligence on U.S. moves in the region. Also, Bortnikov is an economist by trade and understands the pressure created by Western sanctions on Russia. He has the comprehensive knowledge needed to discuss all these issues in Washington.

These discussions come at a critical point in this stage of the crisis. However, even if the United States gives Bortnikov assurances that it will respect the line on Ukraine and tensions could ease if Russia keeps its end of the bargain, there is still little trust between the two states.