MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images(NEW YORK) — What a difference a year makes.
In February 2014, the world’s attention was focused on the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and on Russia’s effort to pull off a successful spectacle. But just days after the Olympics ended, the attention remained on Russia as Russian troops moved into the Crimea region to seize it from Ukraine’s military. The subsequent annexation of Crimea and continued Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine have brought Russia’s relationship with the West to its lowest point since the end of the Cold War.
On Tuesday, Sochi will be the site of a meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian President Vladimir Putin, part of Kerry’s first visit to Russia in two years, according to the State Department. Acting State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the meeting was “confirmed,” though Putin’s top spokesman told a Russian radio station earlier Monday that no decision had been made yet about a meeting between the two.
“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,” Harf said in a statement announcing Kerry’s trip and his meeting with Putin.
While Ukraine will be “a huge topic of conversation” between Kerry and Putin, Harf said the talks will also center on other diplomatic issues where the U.S and Russia have continued to work together.
That includes the nuclear talks with Iran, an issue where Harf has described Russia as being “in lock step” with the U.S. and working towards a negotiated end to the Syrian civil war. But she said Kerry’s meeting with Putin will also be an opportunity “to discuss ones where we very strongly disagree, like Ukraine.”
The United States and the international community have continued to put pressure on Russia to step back its involvement in eastern Ukraine. The State Department has repeatedly accused Russia and Russian separatists of having violated a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine.
Recently, American defense officials have said the Russian-supported separatists are using the cover of the Minsk agreement to regenerate forces for another offensive against Ukrainian forces. Russia has fired back, accusing the Ukrainian government of also violating the agreement and criticizing the U.S. for meddling in the region.
“We’ve seen statements like this from the Russians repeatedly,” Harf said on Monday. “We’ve made clear what has happened here and that the Russians are the ones who are responsible for deescalating and pulling back. We only took actions in response to their actions.”
The Russians are hinting that Kerry’s visit will “serve to normalize bilateral relations” between the two countries.
Harf thought that term did not apply, but said the opportunity to discuss areas of disagreement was worthwhile.
“Just because you strongly disagree with what a country is doing doesn’t mean you shouldn’t meet with them. In fact, it actually means you should try and make progress,” said Harf.
The civil war in Syria has raged for more than four years with estimates that 210,000 Syrians have died in the conflict.
Both the United States and Russia have worked towards a negotiated resolution of the war in Syria, though that has proven elusive. One bright spot was that both countries were able to finalize an agreement that resulted in Syria turning over its chemical weapons to the United Nations. Last February, the U.S. and Russia sponsored peace talks in Geneva between the Assad regime and opposition groups that quickly fell apart as both sides bickered about what the talks should focus on. The Assad regime wanted the talks to focus on combating terrorism while the opposition wanted Assad’s removal from power.
“Secretary Kerry and the team have long been thinking through ways to get back to a diplomatic process here when it comes to a Geneva-like scenario where we get the parties to the table and where we can actually make progress towards a political transition in Syria,” said Harf on Monday. “We’ve certainly felt very strongly that we need to get back to that kind of political dialogue at some point, given where we are.”
But a complicating factor towards renewing talks is the weakened position of the moderate Syrian opposition who have suffered defeats on the battlefield to extremist groups like ISIS and the Al Nusra Front. Meanwhile, Assad may be less inclined to participate in talks as he continues to receive support from Iran and Hezbollah.
The U.S. and Russia have been working towards a nuclear deal with Iran, but final details still need to be worked out by the end of June — particularly the daylight between American and Iranian interpretations of the deal that was worked out in Switzerland, specifically as it relates to sanctions relief for Iran. Just days after that deal was announced, Vladimir Putin lifted the ban on the sale of the advanced Russian S-300 air defense system to Iran. The move was criticized by the Obama administration but not seen as a deal-breaker for the talks. The administration has had a tough time selling the deal to its Arab partners in the region who are wary of Iran’s support for Houthi rebels in the region.
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