SOCHI, Russia — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin with an eye on easing badly strained relations over conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.
Kerry laid a wreath at a World War II memorial in the Black Sea resort city May 11 before meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Later, he was to meet Putin on the brief visit, his first to Russia since May 2013 and the advent of the Ukraine crisis.
The top U.S. diplomat plans to test Putin’s willingness to push pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine to comply with an increasingly fragile ceasefire agreement, according to U.S. officials traveling with him.
Kerry will also seek to gauge the status of Russia’s support for embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces have been losing ground to rebels, and press Moscow to support a political transition that could end that war, the officials said.
In addition, Kerry will make the case to Putin that Russia should not proceed with its planned transfer of an advanced air defense system to Iran.
Kerry’s trip comes at a time when relations between Washington and Moscow have plummeted to post-Cold War lows amid the disagreements over Ukraine and Syria.
In a sign of the considerable strains, the Kremlin said that the Putin meeting was not confirmed, although U.S. officials insisted it was.
A senior State Department official brushed aside the non-confirmation of the meeting from the Russian side, saying tersely, “We usually don’t go to Sochi to see Foreign Minister Lavrov.”
On May 11, the Kremlin finally confirmed that Putin will meet with Kerry.
Putin’s spokesman welcomed Kerry’s decision to travel to Russia. “We have repeatedly stated at various levels and the president has said that Russia never initiated the freeze in relations and we are always open for displays of political will for a broader dialogue,” Dmitry Peskov told journalists in Sochi.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry had previewed the talks by blaming Washington for the breakdown in relations.
“The Obama administration chose the path of scaling back bilateral relations, proclaimed a course of isolating Russia on the international arena and demanded that those states that traditionally follow the lead of Washington support its confrontational steps,” it said in a statement.
Ukraine’s crisis, it said, “was largely provoked by the United States itself.”
The rhetoric hardly augured well for a breakthrough on any of the many issues dividing the U.S. and Russia. Nevertheless, both sides stressed the importance of trying to work through some of the rancor that buried President Barack Obama’s first-term effort to “reset” ties with Moscow.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest acknowledged the “complicated” relationship between the former foes, but insisted they could cooperate on “interests that benefit the citizens of both our countries.”
Much hinges on violence decreasing in Ukraine, however.
The Western-backed government in Kiev continues to be embroiled in a sporadic conflict between government and separatist rebel forces in its eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk despite a cease-fire agreement sealed in mid-February.
Russia was party to that deal; although the U.S. was not, one State Department official said it is important for Putin “to hear directly from the United States that we are firmly committed to (its) implementation.”
Western nations say Russia supports the separatists with arms and manpower, and even directs some battlefield operations — all claims Moscow denies. In return, the Russians bristle at Washington’s provisions to Ukraine of military assistance in the form of hardware and training.
Diplomats in Moscow and Washington are at odds over a range of other issues.
Russia last month announced it would lift a five-year ban on delivery of an air defense missile system to Iran, drawing a hasty rebuke from the United States.
The White House said the missile system would give the Islamic republic’s military a strong deterrent against any air attack. The Kremlin argues that the S-300 is a purely defensive system that will not jeopardize the security of Israel or any other countries in the Middle East.
On Syria, Russia has defied a chorus of international condemnation to remain allied with Assad.
Following his stop in Sochi, Kerry will travel to Antalya, Turkey, where he will attend a meeting of NATO foreign ministers May 13.
Kerry will then return to Washington to attend meetings May 14 with Obama and top officials of the Persian Gulf Arab states, who are concerned about the possibility of a nuclear deal with Iran.
(MATTHEW LEE, AP Diplomatic Writer)