U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry headed to Russia intending to meet with President Vladimir Putin for their first direct talks after two years filled with tension over Ukraine and other conflicts.
The initial word from Russia was anything but conciliatory, with the Foreign Ministry saying that Kerry will talk with Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov and making no mention of a session with Putin.
“Russian-U.S. relations are passing through a difficult period caused by targeted unfriendly actions by Washington,” the ministry said in a statement posted on Facebook. “The White House groundlessly blamed Russia for the Ukrainian crisis, which in fact was largely provoked by the United States itself.”
The U.S. State Department said Kerry will meet with Putin on Tuesday in Sochi, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
“We’ve always said where there are areas we can work together, we will,” Marie Harf, a department spokeswoman, told reporters in Washington. “This is part of our ongoing effort to maintain open lines of communication.”
A face-to-face meeting would provide Kerry with an opportunity to probe Putin, whose actions are drawing more attention to the inner workings of the Kremlin than at any time since the end of the Cold War.
Russia’s chilly rhetoric aside, U.S. officials and analysts are trying to assess how much muscle-flexing the Russian leader plans in Europe and elsewhere as he seeks to reestablish Russia as a major power.
“Putin wants to end his isolation; this is not something which he feels comfort about,” Alexander Baunov, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said by e-mail. “Kerry’s goal is to see whether Putin is serious about peace in Ukraine.”
Tensions there are rising, with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg saying Monday in Brussels that Russia has the capacity to attack Ukraine “with very little warning.”
In addition to Ukraine, Kerry and Putin are likely to discuss the negotiations for an Iran nuclear deal, counterterrorism and efforts to end civil wars in Yemen and Syria, where Russia is embattled ruler Bashar al-Assad’s staunchest ally.
“There could be a serious discussion of what the future of Syria looks like and how to configure that between various American allies, Russian allies and Iran,” Michael Kofman, who follows developments in Russia as a public policy scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington, said Monday on a conference call with reporters.
Kerry will stop in Sochi on his way to a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Turkey, where the allies’ discussion will include the prospects for a new flare-up of fighting in Ukraine and steps to prevent alliance members such as the Baltic states from facing aggression by Russia.
U.S. officials such as Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s top commander, have said Russian-backed Ukrainian rebels have been using a lull in fighting under a cease-fire agreed to in February to prepare for a possible new offensive. Breedlove said the U.S. needs to increase its deterrence efforts in order to manage Putin’s “opportunistic confidence.”
The U.S.’s intelligence assessment is that a renewed offensive by Ukrainian rebels is coming, and could be aimed at the southeastern port city of Mariupol, said U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified assessments. Kharkiv in the northeast, Ukraine’s second-largest city, is also also a possibility because attention is so focused on the land corridor to Crimea, the officials said.
Putin has repeatedly blamed the U.S. for fueling the conflict in Ukraine by supporting the opposition coup against President Viktor Yanukovych’s regime, which was overthrown in February 2014. For Putin, the meeting with Kerry will be an opportunity to demand that the U.S. pressure the government in Kiev for more concessions.
U.S. officials have said they’re pleased that tensions over Ukraine haven’t led to Russia disrupting efforts by world powers to reach a verifiable accord with Iran. Even so, the U.S. was unhappy when Putin last month lifted his ban on delivery of the sophisticated S-300 air-defense system to Iran.
Kerry still needs to get Russian support for details of how sanctions would “snap back” into place if Iran failed to live up to the accord being sought with the U.S., Russia and four other nations. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, chief negotiator for the U.S. in the Iran talks, accompanied Kerry on the trip.
The Kerry-Putin meeting would come days after Russia’s memorial ceremony in Moscow marking the 70th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. The event featured the largest military parade there since the collapse of the Soviet Union, with Russia showing off its latest military hardware, including one of its newest Armata tanks.
Leaders of the U.S. and most European nations boycotted the events because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
The tensions were evident in Putin’s speech marking the occasion. He said peaceful conditions are jeopardized by “attempts to create a unipolar world,” a phrase Russia now uses to refer to U.S. diplomatic and military primacy since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who skipped the parade, instead met Sunday with Putin. The pair laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near the Kremlin.
Merkel, who has been the West’s key interlocutor with Putin, said at a press conference that the Russian leader’s “illegal” annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the conflict in Ukraine had caused a “severe setback” in ties. She urged Putin to use his influence on separatists in eastern Ukraine to support the cease-fire.
Coming soon after Victory Day parade, one of the U.S. officials said, a new Russian offensive would build on the nationalism inherent in celebrating the Soviet Union’s victory over fascism -- a term Putin now uses to describe Ukrainian forces fighting Russia-backed Ukrainian separatists.
Kerry last met with Putin in May 2013, before relations took a turn for the worse when Russia gave asylum to Edward Snowden. The former National Security Agency contractor continues to be protected in Moscow from U.S. prosecution after disclosing the scope of secret data-collection efforts by the intelligence agency.
It also was before Ukrainian separatists and Russian special forces moved in early 2014 to seize Crimea. Russia has since been slapped with U.S. and EU sanctions for annexing Crimea and supporting rebels in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Putin’s interests have been hit by the sanctions. Many members of his inner circle can’t travel abroad or use their foreign assets, and major Russian companies have been shut out of foreign capital markets. After a crash in oil prices and the imposition of sanctions, the country had it worst currency crisis since 1998 and the economy is entering its first recession in six years.