KIEV, Ukraine -- When Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this month was planning the first high-level talks between Washington and Moscow in years, he faced a problem: Two American aid workers were secretly being held by Ukrainian separatists.
On April 29, the self-proclaimed government of the Donetsk People’s Republic announced it had expelled seven Western aid workers accused of spying.
But that was a lie.
Only the five European aid workers detained were let go, while two Americans -- a doctor and a humanitarian worker with the International Rescue Committee -- were kept for nine more days.
During that period, a network of aid groups and international organizations worked quietly behind the scenes to secure their release.
They were finally freed on May 8.
What’s never been reported is that during those tense days, Kerry personally intervened and raised the issue over the phone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, asking him to use Moscow’s influence over the Donetsk separatists to secure the release of the two Americans, a senior administration official told us.
Several diplomatic sources told us that Lavrov came through, making it clear to the Donetsk leadership that holding the Americans longer was not a good idea.
The so-called prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, told the Russian media that he had decided to release the Americans before “Victory in Europe Day,” the Russian holiday that commemorates the Nazi surrender in 1945.
“We freed two in the run-up to the May 9 holiday, one of whom was an employee of the CIA, the second was recruited by the CIA." he said.
"They were here in order to carry out intelligence gathering activities.”
Zakharchenko said the IRC employees had been caught trying to make contact with local officials and collecting information about local support for the separatist government.
After the release, he said, he handed over confiscated electronic listening devices to American authorities.
"This is the first diplomatic scandal for our republic," Zakharchenko said, framing the negotiations over releasing the aid workers as a de facto U.S. recognition of his banana republic inside eastern Ukraine.
The International Rescue Committee told us the Americans, as well as aid workers from other countries, were not spies.
Collecting information from locals is part of the regular work the IRC does in places such as Ukraine.
Focus groups help determine the need for aid and inform the IRC’s response, they said.
“Those allegations are untrue,” spokeswoman Colleen Ryan told us.
“These are two humanitarian workers -- impartial, neutral and focused on helping people whose lives have been ripped apart by the crisis.”
Ryan confirmed that several organizations, including the U.S. government, were involved in the diplomatic process to secure the workers’ release.
Administration officials declined to comment about the detained Americans, citing privacy concerns.
The IRC has suspended all of its programs in eastern Ukraine indefinitely.
IRC president David Miliband, a former British Foreign Secretary, said in a statement that the Donetsk separatist government’s actions were a blow to the overall ability of humanitarian groups to aid Ukrainians as the crisis continues.
“In recent years, we have seen a concerning escalation in violence directed at humanitarians workers, particularly in conflict-ridden areas controlled by non-state actors,” he said.
“These are women and men who have dedicated their lives to humanitarian aid -- under no circumstances should they be targeted.”
Just before the Americans were released, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken had some harsh words for the separatists, accusing them and Moscow of violating the Minsk agreement reached in February.
That pact was meant to end the violence between the Ukrainian military and the Russian-backed separatist forces, but is fraying badly.
“Violence is being perpetrated almost exclusively by the separatists and by the Russians who back them and indeed provide command and control,” Blinken said in Washington on May 8.
“Every point of conflict is a result of the separatists trying to extend their territory, backed and supported by Russia, and the Ukrainians are acting defensively.”
Kerry finally met with Lavrov and Putin four days later in Sochi, Russia, where he struck a markedly different tone.
He urged the Ukrainian government of President Petro Poroshenko not to be militarily aggressive.
“If indeed President Poroshenko is advocating an engagement in a forceful effort at this time, we would strongly urge him to think twice not to engage in that kind of activity, that that would put Minsk in serious jeopardy,” Kerry said.
The Russian media heavily publicized Kerry’s comments, and the New York Times reported that his visit was widely interpreted in Russia “as a sign of surrender by the Americans.”
Putin was able to show the world that the U.S. had no choice but to acknowledge Moscow’s important role in the world.
This is hardly the case.
For Kerry, visiting Russia is not a concession to Putin.
There are a host of issues he wants to work with Russia on, despite the impasses over Ukraine, including diplomacy on Syria and Iran.
We previously reported that Kerry had been trying to arrange a trip to Russia for several months, and even scheduled one last fall that fell through at the last minute.
Kerry and Lavrov’s successful effort to free two imprisoned Americans shows that their relationship, the only functioning high-level channel of communication between the two governments, can occasionally have benefits.
There’s little upside to cutting off relations with Moscow completely.
Still, the lack of agreement on any other front in Sochi shows there is still a huge gap between how the two governments view the relationship going forward.
Washington wants to trade sanctions relief for Russian withdrawal of support for Ukrainian separatists.
Moscow has made it clear it has no intention of even entertaining such an exchange.
The release of the two American aid workers could be the last true joint effort between the U.S. and Russia for the foreseeable future.