U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry heads into talks today with Russian President Vladimir Putin as officials on both sides set low expectations for their first meeting in two years.
Kerry arrived in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Tuesday, preceded by a rhetorical blast from the Russian Foreign Ministry, which said the “difficult period” in relations is “caused by targeted unfriendly actions by Washington.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov struck a more upbeat tone on Tuesday, describing Kerry’s visit to Russia as “very positive.” Russia “wasn’t the initiator of the freeze in relations,” he told reporters. “We are always open to a display of political will for broader dialogue, and through dialogue we can find a way to some sort of normalization.”
One State Department official, who briefed reporters, downplayed prospects for any breakthroughs, while saying the talks nevertheless are a chance to communicate more clearly and to feel out Putin on a range of issues where the U.S. and Russia have converging or overlapping interests. The U.S. has sought to largely isolate Putin, cutting back dealings with Russia in the wake of disputes over Ukraine and Russian asylum for NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
Kerry will say there is a lot the U.S. and Russia can accomplish together if there is the interest, according to the State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic talks. At the same time, U.S. officials are mindful that Putin’s military involvement in Ukraine and menacing moves elsewhere threaten to only deepen the tensions between Russia and Western nations.
The statement by the Foreign Ministry in Moscow recognized the possibility of making progress in some areas. The U.S. and Russia are cooperating in the Iran nuclear talks and there may be other opportunities in “areas where it conforms with the interests and goals of national security,” it said.
Cooperation must be “based on equal rights, non-interference in internal affairs and due consideration for Russia’s interests, without attempts to put pressure on us,” according to the Foreign Ministry statement.
Both U.S. officials and the Russian statement made clear that deep division over Ukraine -- one area where Russia is under pressure from the U.S. and Europe to change course -- will complicate dealings on other issues. Putin and Kerry will discuss the Ukrainian peace accord negotiated in Minsk, Belarus, in February during their meeting, Peskov said.
The U.S. is bracing for the likelihood of a new offensive by the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine within weeks or months, unless Putin decides otherwise. While the U.S. sees Putin’s military expansionism at work there, the Foreign Ministry says the Ukrainian crisis “in fact was largely provoked by the United States itself.”
On Iran, Kerry will stress the importance of maintaining unity among the world powers heading toward the June 30 deadline to reach a nuclear accord as outlined by the framework understanding, the State Department official said. U.S. officials have worried that the tensions over Ukraine would jeopardize Russian cooperation in the negotiations, which they say hasn’t happened so far.
Russia’s support is needed to resolve to U.S. satisfaction issues that remain outstanding, such as the formulation for snap-back sanctions in the United Nations Security Council. At the UN, diplomats say that there is a gulf between U.S. and Russian views, which is creating doubts about U.S. President Barack Obama achieving the kind of self-implementing punitive measures he has talked about to put teeth in an Iran arms deal.
Kerry plans to see if Russia will back new moves for a negotiated settlement in Syria, which would include the departure of President Bashar al-Assad, who has held onto power with backing from Russia and Iran. One question is whether recent losses by Assad’s forces are leading Russia to rethink its ties to him if it wants to have influence in an eventual post-Assad Syria.
In the aftermath of the U.S.-Russian deal that removed Syria’s deadliest chemical weapons such as sarin, Kerry plans to say that the job isn’t done since the regime now uses chlorine gas against civilians. The State Department official declined to say whether Kerry had specific actions in mind, though it is an issue being discussed at the UN Security Council.
Kerry also will discuss conflicts where U.S. and Russian interests may align, including the fight against Islamic State and efforts to halt the conflict in Yemen through negotiations, the State Department official said. U.S. officials think Russia has influence with the Houthi rebels in Yemen and may want to win favor with the new Saudi monarch by helping end the fighting there.
The official indicated the most difficult area of the talks will be on Ukraine. Kerry will stress that the Minsk agreements, including the cease-fire, offer Russia a credible route to address its concerns if Putin doesn’t have larger territorial ambitions. Russia denies U.S. and European Union accusations that it has sent troops and weapons to support the separatists, and has accused Ukraine of waging war on its own people.
Full implementation of the Minsk accords would lead the U.S. and the EU to remove sanctions imposed on Russia over the conflict, the official said. At the same time, Kerry will tell Putin that the Western nations agree that they will impose further sanctions if there is new fighting, the official said.
In effect, Putin will hear many of the same things about Ukraine from Kerry that he heard from German Chancellor Angela Merkel when they met on Sunday in Moscow, the State Department official said.
While Ukraine-related sanctions have hit parts of the Russian economy and members of Putin’s inner circle, the Foreign Ministry made a point of downplaying the idea that the measures will force Putin to back away from Ukraine.
“Despite pressure from the White House, American business is not rushing to leave the Russian market, being highly interested in continuing their cooperation,” the ministry said in its statement. “Boeing, Ford, John Deere, Alcoa, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Mars, ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and other companies, which invested major funds in Russia, would like to maintain their positions. Despite sanctions, in 2014, bilateral trade rose by 5.6 percent compared with the same period a year earlier, to reach $29.2 billion.”
For more, read this QuickTake: The Cool War