Kerry Travels to Russia for Meeting with Putin

Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Russia on Monday to meet with President Vladimir V. Putin and discuss whether it is possible for the two sides to work together on a political solution for the conflict in Syria, American officials said.

The meeting, which will be held on Tuesday in the Black Sea city of Sochi, represents a fresh attempt by the Obama administration to pursue a political solution to Syria after years of frustrated diplomacy and deepening violence there.

It is also another twist in the United States relations with Russia. The Obama administration has sometimes sought to isolate Mr. Putin because of his military intervention in Ukraine, but has also sought to carve out areas where the two sides might cooperate.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva, on March 2, 2015. (AP / Evan Vucci)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva, on March 2, 2015. (AP / Evan Vucci)

“This trip is part of our ongoing effort to maintain direct lines of communication with senior Russian officials and to ensure U.S. views are clearly conveyed,” said the State Department, which added that the subjects will include “a full range of bilateral and regional issues, including Iran, Syria and Ukraine.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry announced the meeting in somewhat caustic terms. “Russia-U.S. relations are passing through a difficult period caused by targeted unfriendly actions by Washington,” its statement read. “We are open to cooperation based on equal rights, noninterference in internal affairs and due consideration for Russia’s interests, without attempts to put pressure on us.”

American and Russian officials have been worried that the fighters from their countries who have joined the ranks of Islamic militants in Syria could return home to carry out terrorist attacks. The recent setbacks President Bashar al-Assad’s troops had sustained have only underscored that the dangers posed by the militants may be growing.

But the Obama administration has previously sought to work with Russia on Syria without success. Two years ago, Mr. Kerry met with Mr. Putin in Moscow and announced that the United States and Russia would convene an international conference to try to end the war in Syria.

That peace conference, which was held under the United Nations auspices in early 2014, failed to make any headway when the delegation representing President Assad refused to discuss the formation of a transitional administration that would not include the Syria leader.

Robert Ford, who served as the senior envoy to the Syrian opposition at that conference, said that Russia’s reluctance to pressure the Assad government to make concessions had contributed to the impasse.

“In February 2014, the Russian delegation declined to lean on the Syrian delegation to negotiate a political solution, even though the U.N. secretary general’s invitation clearly stated that was the purpose of the negotiation,” said Mr. Ford, who has since retired from the State Department.

Another question is whether Russia still retains enough influence to prod the Assad government to negotiate. Russia, which has long supported the Syrian government, has supplied it with sophisticated arms and parts for its helicopters.

But Iran has provided more military and financial support, and has arranged for Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia backed by Tehran, to fight with Mr. Assad’s forces.

Two rounds of talks on the Syria crisis that Russia hosted in Moscow this year made no headway when the Assad government officials showed no flexibility and members of the moderate Syrian opposition refused to attend.

“The lack of any real progress in the Moscow talks” demonstrates “the constraints in getting Assad to go diplomatically,” said Andrew J. Tabler, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Mr. Kerry’ s visit to Sochi will not last long. After meeting with Mr. Putin on Tuesday, Mr. Kerry will travel to Turkey later in the day for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers. By Wednesday night, Mr. Kerry is scheduled to be back in the United States for President Obama’s Camp David meeting with Saudi and other Gulf state diplomats.

Mr. Kerry’s trip is taking place amid mounting concern over Russia’s policy toward Ukraine. Just last month, the State Department charged that the Russian was continuing to violate a February cease-fire accord by shipping heavy weapons to Ukrainian separatists and keeping some Russian forces in eastern Ukraine

“Clearly Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine are preparing for another round of military action that would be inconsistent with the Minsk Agreement,” Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter told Congress last week, referring to the cease-fire accord, which was negotiated by European powers with Russia and Ukraine.

To signal their displeasure over Russia’s continued military intervention in eastern Ukraine, Mr. Obama and other Western leaders did not attend celebrations on Saturday in Moscow that commemorated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

But shortly after that event, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany traveled to Moscow to meet with Mr. Putin and Mr. Kerry is heading to Russia for his own meeting.

Just a year ago, aides to President Obama asserted that they could not envision a constructive relationship with Mr. Putin because of the use of military force in Ukraine and Cold War style rhetoric.

In practice, however, the Obama administration’s Russia policy has all along sought to identify areas of potential cooperation, such as in the Iran nuclear talks in which Mr. Kerry has worked with Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, even as the United States has imposed economic sanctions on Russia because of Ukraine.

Mr. Kerry is expected to build on that approach by discussing areas in which the two sides might work together in addition to Syria, such as North Korea, whose nuclear weapons and missile programs have rattled the international community.