U.S. Secretary of State John met Russian President Vladimir Putin Tuesday in the resort city of Sochi, in Kerry’s first visit to Russia since relations soured over sharp disagreements on Ukraine and Syria.
Before sitting down with Putin, Kerry met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for more than four hours in what was then the highest-level U.S. visit to Russia since the Ukraine crisis began in fall 2013.
The U.S. State Department said they would discuss “a full range of bilateral and regional issues” including the Iran nuclear deal, Yemen and Libya, as part of an ongoing effort to ensure that U.S. views are clearly conveyed.
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, and the trip appeared designed as much to maintain contact as anything else.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov, who confirmed Putin’s participation in the Sochi talks early Tuesday, told Russia’s Interfax news agency that international sanctions on Russia, linked to its involvement with separatists in eastern Ukraine, are not on Russia’s agenda. But he said if the subject comes up, the Russian side will “express [its] position.”
The Sochi meetings are happening the same day that a report was released based on information compiled by slain Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov that said at least 220 Russian soldiers have died in fighting in southeastern Ukraine over the past year, despite Russia’s denials of involvement.
Following his discussions in Sochi, Kerry will travel to Antalya, Turkey, where he will attend a meeting of NATO foreign ministers Wednesday. On Thursday, he returns to Washington to attend meetings with U.S. President Barack Obama and top officials of the Persian Gulf Arab states, who are concerned about the possibility of a nuclear deal with Iran.
On Monday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg again accused Moscow of violating the cease-fire in the Ukrainian conflict by continuing to supply pro-Russian separatists with military aid.
Stoltenberg and NATO military chief U.S. General Philip Breedlove have repeatedly accused the Kremlin of lending support to pro-Russian rebels battling Ukraine forces in eastern Ukraine.
Speaking Monday in Brussels, Stoltenberg described the Russian buildup since a cease-fire in February as “a steady flow of heavy equipment, tanks, artillery, ammunition, air defense systems and a lot of training.”
Last month, in a similar critique, he said the ongoing buildup — including at that time more than 1,000 pieces of heavy equipment — “gives reason for great concern” and would allow rebels to launch new military offensives in the east with little advanced warning.
Moscow has repeatedly denied the NATO claims. In late April, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu countered by accusing the U.S. military of providing training in urban fighting to Ukrainian national guardsmen near the border.