SOCHI, Russia – US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in the Russian resort of Sochi Tuesday, May 12, for high stakes talks seeking to push President Vladimir Putin to fully implement a shaky Ukraine ceasefire.
Kerry was to meet Putin in the Black Sea city at “a critical moment” for Ukraine aiming to ensure the “next steps in concrete implementation” of the ceasefire deal are taken, a senior State Department official said.
The top US diplomat also wanted to discuss the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya as well as brief Putin on the state of the negotiations seeking to reach a potentially historic deal on curtailing Iran’s nuclear program.
Kerry will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and then Putin.
It is the highest-level trip by a US official to Russia since Kerry visited Moscow in May 2013.
Ties between Moscow and Washington collapsed when Russia seized the southern Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in early 2014 and buttressed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
But after a year of tensions, signs are emerging that both Russia and the West may be ready to seek detente.
And on a host of global issues – from the threat of Islamic militants in Iraq to the civil war in Syria where US-backed Syrian rebels are seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad – Washington aims to engage Moscow’s help.
“We have a lot of business we could do together if there is interest,” the senior State Department official told reporters traveling on Kerry’s plane.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the visit by Kerry as “extremely positive” and said that his talks with Putin would cover a wide range of topics, from US-Russian bilateral ties to other international “hot-button issues”.
“Through dialogue we can search for a path towards some sort of normalization of ties and closer coordination in solving international problems,” Peskov was quoted as saying by Russian wires.
“But this is only possible through dialogue.”
Putin has refused to budge on Ukraine, despite a ceasefire agreement re-negotiated in February in Minsk, but has signaled readiness to mend ties with Washington and Brussels as Russia chafes under biting Western sanctions.
“We have been very, very clear publicly that if Minsk is fully implemented… including restoration of the sovereign border, there will be an opportunity to roll back sanctions,” the US official said.
But “we’ve also made clear that if there is more serious violations that the pressure will increase.”
Kerry wanted to “get down to some of the efforts on the ground to implement Minsk, make it absolutely clear that that’s what we want to see and we want to be helpful.”
His visit comes hot on the heels of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has led European efforts to broker a peace deal in Ukraine and who said in Moscow on Sunday that there was still no genuine ceasefire.
Kiev and the pro-Russian rebels accuse each other of continuing to violate the ceasefire despite claims of withdrawing heavy weapons from the frontline.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg warned Monday that Russia and the pro-Moscow rebels could now launch new attacks “with very little warning” after a sustained military build-up.
The crisis in Ukraine is likely to top NATO foreign ministers talks to be held Wednesday in Antalya, Turkey, where Kerry will fly to after his meetings in Sochi.
“It’s important for the main decision-maker on Ukraine, President Putin, to hear directly from the United States that we are firmly committed to Minsk implementation and we want to support those steps that need to be taken,” the State Department official said.
Kerry also plans to update Putin on his recent talks in New York with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as the clock ticks down to a June 30 deadline for a final deal to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.
It is important “as we head into the endgame here … that we stay tightly aligned… because that’s been the most effective way,” the State Department official said.
Moscow is part of the so-called P5+1 group leading the negotiations with Iran and its help will be vital in the UN Security Council on ensuring a mechanism on how to lift UN sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
The top US diplomat would also discuss the civil war in Syria, now in its fifth year, where American officials believe the tide may be turning against Assad, long a Moscow ally.
The senior State Department official acknowledged Kerry had sought direct talks with Putin for some time, but it had been difficult because of the violence raging in Ukraine.
“There is a question now whether this might not be a better moment, I think we’ll see how things go,” the official told reporters.
Refusing to be drawn on whether the United States was hoping for any concrete actions from the Sochi talks, the official insisted only “it’s important for us to keep these lines of communication open.” – Jo Biddle, AFP / Rappler.com
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