SOCHI, Russia — The United States and Russia emerged May 12 from their most extensive, high-level talks in years vowing closer cooperation on Ukraine and Syria but unable to point to any breakthrough or new approach to bridge the major differences separating the two powers.
The atmosphere was cordial and the tone was promising as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held eight hours of talks with President Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Kerry’s first trip to Russia since the Ukraine crisis began coincided with the 70th anniversary of the allied defeat of Nazi Germany, and both sides hailed the virtues of U.S.-Russian engagement.
“We didn’t come here with an expectation that we were going to define a specific path forward … or have a major breakthrough,” Kerry told reporters at a news conference with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. “We came here specifically to have a very full and open dialogue.”
The result appeared to be to the liking of Moscow, which had spoken of Kerry’s trip as a possibility for “normalizing” relations that have been soured by the civil wars in Ukraine and Syria as well as Russia’s treatment of political dissidents and homosexuals and its granting of asylum to former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
The discussions were “useful and positive,” said Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s Foreign Affairs Adviser.
The agenda, however, appeared to be little more than a compendium of the nations’ mixed history of recent diplomatic endeavors. And some issues, such as Russia’s annexation last year of Ukraine’s Crimea region, weren’t publicly spoken of at all.
Kerry and Lavrov promised to work harder to convince Ukraine’s warring factions to adhere to a February cease-fire that has been regularly violated, and on implementing a 2012 U.S.-Russian strategy for a transitional government in Syria that has been a complete failure to date.
And in a surprising moment, the two diplomats issued warnings in turn to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko not to seek the “liberation” of the Donetsk Airport from rebels in eastern Ukraine as he recently suggested in a speech.
“We would strongly urge him to think twice not to engage in this kind of activity,” Kerry said, noting the Ukrainian leader would be putting the cease-fire in “serious jeopardy.” Lavrov said such an offensive would undermine peace efforts.
Despite the signs of goodwill, both sides noted their many disagreements.
Western nations say Russia supports Ukraine’s separatists with arms and manpower, and even directs some battlefield operations — all claims Moscow denies. In return, the Russians bristle at Washington’s provision to Ukraine of military assistance in the form of hardware and training.
Kerry was the more deferential, stressing at the news conference the importance of re-establishing calm in Ukraine over determining which side fired first in each flare-up of violence or whose allegations of wrongdoing were legitimate.
He reiterated a U.S. pledge to roll back some of the economic restrictions on Russia when a cease-fire in Ukraine is completely in place.
That cease-fire would include an end to fighting, withdrawal of heavy weapons, unfettered humanitarian access and the release of political prisoners, he said.
Lavrov’s ministry, meanwhile, struck a defiant tone even as Kerry was still meeting Putin, blaming Washington for strains in relations and insisting that American economic sanctions would not force Moscow to back down on matters critical to its national interests.
Kerry departed shortly before midnight for a NATO meeting in Turkey. Putin is in Sochi meeting with Russian defense officials for a week.
Ushakov, the Putin adviser, said a possible meeting between the Russian leader and U.S. President Barack Obama wasn’t discussed during Tuesday’s talks. Both leaders will attend a G-20 economic summit in Turkey in November, however, and he said they could get together then.
Putin and Obama have met several times in recent years on the sidelines of international events. The most recent encounters have all been brief, and Obama canceled a one-on-one summit that had been scheduled in Moscow in August 2013.
(MATTHEW LEE and BRADLEY KLAPPER)