Secretary of State John F. Kerry huddled with Russian leaders for hours Tuesday in wide-ranging talks on the world crises over which they have bitterly differed and pledged reinvigorated cooperation to resolve the disputes racking Ukraine, Syria and other violence-torn states.
Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists at the end of the talks, which lasted more than eight hours, that they saw eye to eye on the pressing need to put aside differences over the origins of the difficulties plaguing the U.S.-Russian relationship.
They agreed to disagree on many of the problems, both said, but committed themselves to doing everything possible to break out of their diplomatic impasse.
Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Kerry and Lavrov for an additional four hours at his Sochi presidential residence, a commitment of time and interest that Kerry praised as evidence the Kremlin is serious about ending the bloodshed in eastern Ukraine. Pro-Russia separatists have been battling government forces there for more than a year.
Lavrov said the key issue discussed during Kerry's visit to Sochi was the Ukraine crisis. The United States and its Western allies accuse Russia of instigating and arming the rebels who control two large regions of the depressed eastern Ukraine rust belt.
"We agreed that it is only possible to solve this dispute through comprehensive and full implementation of the peace plan," Lavrov said of a Feb. 12 accord brokered in the Belarus capital, Minsk, but repeatedly violated by the combatants.
He said both he and Kerry had promised to use their influence with the respective sides to honor the cease-fire and fulfill the provisions calling for withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front lines.
Kerry, who last visited Russia two years ago, began his readout of the talks by recounting his visit to the World War II memorial in Sochi where 4,000 victims of the fight against Nazi Germany are buried. He and Lavrov laid wreaths to the fallen soldiers and civilians of the war won 70 years ago.
"Sergei and I both came away from the ceremony with a powerful reminder of the sacrifices shared to bring about a safer world and what our nations can accomplish when our people are working together," Kerry said.
While foreign dignitaries routinely begin visits to Moscow by paying respects to the war dead, Kerry's gesture in making his first stop the war memorial appeared to ease the atmosphere of tension that has shrouded U.S.-Russian relations of late. The United States and most European countries boycotted Russia's Victory Day parade Saturday in protest of Putin's annexation of Crimea last year.
What he took away from the discussions with Lavrov and Putin, Kerry said, was that "there's no substitute for talking directly to key decision-makers, particularly in a period as complex and fast-moving as this is."
The two top diplomats also discussed the 4-year-old civil war in Syria, and though they continued to disagree over the need for and the form of leadership change in Damascus, pledged renewed efforts to broker an end to the bloody conflict.
They also found common ground on the need to join forces in the fight against Islamic State, describing the extremists holding huge areas of Syria and Iraq as a grave threat to the world, not just the Middle East.
Kerry met with Lavrov at a hotel in the Black Sea resort before the two moved on to Putin's residence to continue the talks. In addition to Ukraine and Syria, they discussed the recent violence in Yemen and political chaos in Libya, though neither went into detail on their conclusions on the way forward in those crises.
There was also discussion of the two countries' contrary positions on Iran and its potential to further destabilize the Middle East. Kerry said there was consensus that with an Iran nuclear deal to ensure Tehran doesn't develop atomic weapons so close, they needed to devote themselves to seeing a final accord reached.
Lavrov was asked whether Kerry had appealed to him and Putin to refrain from delivering S-300 missiles sold to Iran five years ago but held up while the nuclear negotiations were underway. The Russian diplomat said it didn't come up, and Kerry said that though the U.S. continues to have concerns about the weapons transfer, they were more about timing and the potential to complicate a final nuclear accord.
Russian television footage of the start of Kerry's meeting with Putin, who did not attend the press briefing, showed the Kremlin leader smiling and exuding confidence as he shook hands with his American visitor. Prior to the meetings and the clear effort of both sides to project a positive outcome, Putin and other Russian officials cast Kerry's visit as Washington finally coming to recognize the futility of its efforts to isolate Russia.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told journalists in Sochi that the Kremlin welcomed Kerry's visit, stating that "Russia never initiated the freeze in relations and we are always open for displays of political will for a broader dialogue."
Russia's Foreign Ministry issued a statement three hours into Kerry's meeting with Putin, reiterating the Kremlin's position that the strains aren't the fault of Moscow.
"Sergei Lavrov noted that we aren't to blame for the current crisis in relations with Washington,” the statement said. “Russia is ready for constructive cooperation with Washington both on bilateral issues and in the global arena, where our countries bear special responsibility for global security and stability. However, cooperation is only possible on an honest and equal basis, without attempts at diktat and enforcement.”
What were already troubled relations between Russia and the West have sharply deteriorated since the Kremlin's seizure and annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula 14 months ago and Putin's steadfast insistence that the territory belongs to Russia and was transferred at the will of the people.
Most of Crimea's 2 million residents are Russian, and a referendum held under heavy Russian military presence on March 16, 2014, purportedly drew 97% support for secession from Ukraine.
U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials accuse the Kremlin of backing separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, where a war over territory has killed at least 6,100 people since April 2014.
On Monday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance has witnessed "a steady flow of heavy equipment, tanks, artillery, ammunition, air defense systems and a lot of training" by Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine in recent weeks, in spite of a cease-fire and weapons pullback purportedly in effect for the last three months.
In Moscow on Tuesday, opposition politicians presented a report begun by Putin critic Boris Y. Nemtsov before he was gunned down near the Kremlin on Feb. 27. The report completed by Nemtsov colleague Ilya Yashin and other political activists said that at least 220 Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine fighting over the last 13 months and that as many as 10,000 Russian troops are believed to be backing the local separatists in eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin has spent about $1.3 billion on the effort to destabilize Ukraine, the report said.
Putin has denied involvement in the Ukraine crisis, contending that any Russians fighting in the neighboring country are there as volunteers.
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