John Kerry is expected to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as Russia's foreign minister
"It's important to try to talk to the senior decision-maker," a State Department official says
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other top Russian officials, when he paid his first visit to Russia in two years at a time of severely strained relations between the two powers.
Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov discussed everything from Iranian nuclear negotiations to cooperating on a solution to the Syrian and Ukrainian conflicts, and also touched on the situation in Yemen. The pair also broached tensions between the U.S. and Russia and both stressed the need to improve cooperation.
Kerry seemed optimistic on that front, saying positive things about U.S.-Russia cooperation on key issues and also affirming that the U.S. and the European Union could begin rolling back sanctions on Russia if the Minsk agreements to stop the fighting in Eastern Ukraine are implemented.
“There is no substitute for talking directly to key decision makers, particularly during a period that is as complex and is moving as this is,” Kerry said Tuesday, adding that he was grateful for the “significant amount of time” Putin spent with him.
Lavrov said the two sides “discussed the state of our bilateral relations … including some specific irritators that have been in place.”
And he stressed the importance of avoiding any actions that could ramp up tensions between the two countries, noting that resolving many top international issues “depends on our joint efforts.”
On Iran, Kerry said the U.S. and Russia remain “closely aligned in this effort,” stressing that continued cooperation would be crucial to sealing a deal with Iran in the final weeks of negotiations.
The U.S. and Russia also plan to work closely in the coming weeks to discuss finding a political solution to the Syrian conflict, which the U.S. has stressed can only happen if Syrian President Bashar el-Assad leaves.
Kerry met separately with Lavrov after his meeting with Putin.
Shortly after his arrival, Kerry joined Lavrov in laying a wreath at the Zakovkzalny War Memorial in Sochi for soldiers killed in World War II. The tribute followed a weekend of events to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Kerry drew on that moment in his remarks later Tuesday, calling the ceremony “a powerful reminder of the sacrifices that we shared to bring about a safer world and what our nations can accomplish when our peoples are working together toward a same goal.”
Relations between the United States and Russia have deteriorated in large part because of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
U.S. officials, like many in the West, accuse Russia of equipping and supporting pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine, as well as sending its own troops over the border into Ukraine – claims that Moscow denies. Russia also annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region last year.
The United States and European Union have imposed financial sanctions against Russian interests in an attempt to pressure Moscow into changing course.
A senior State Department official said it was a “critical moment” to move forward on Ukraine and try to stop the violence.
“We’ve been very, very clear publicly that if Minsk is fully implemented, when it’s fully implemented, including restoration of the sovereign border, there’ll be an opportunity to roll back sanctions. We’ve also made clear that if there is – are more serious violations that the pressure will increase,” the official said before the meetings.
Meanwhile, Russia blames the United States for the Ukraine crisis, saying it was Washington’s support for the administration now in power in Kiev that led to the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow former President Viktor Yanukovych in early 2014, following weeks of street protests.
The United States is currently providing almost $130 million in nonlethal security support to Ukraine and is helping to train the Ukrainian National Guard in western Ukraine.
The expected meeting between Kerry and Putin may signal a desire to move toward a normalization of bilateral relations.
Despite the tensions over Ukraine, the two countries cooperate at the U.N. Security Council in other important areas of diplomacy, such as Iran’s controversial nuclear program. They also need to find common ground on Syria and the current crisis in Yemen.
Putin has not been prepared to back down over Ukraine so far. But the expected meeting between Kerry and Putin suggests some willingness at least for the two sides to talk.
Kerry will travel on from Sochi to Antalya, in southern Turkey, where he will hold talks with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin on what was discussed in Sochi.
He will also speak with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and other NATO foreign ministers, before meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
Kerry is expected to return to Washington in time for President Barack Obama’s dinner with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council on Wednesday.
CNN’s Matthew Chance reported from Moscow and Laura Smith-Spark wrote in London.