US SECRETARY of state John Kerry has met Russian president Vladimir Putin in a bid to ease badly strained relations over the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.
On his first trip to Russia since the Ukraine crisis began in 2014, Mr Kerry held more than four hours of talks with foreign minister Sergey Lavrov at a hotel in the Black Sea resort of Sochi before seeing Mr Putin at his presidential residence in the city.
Mr Putin is in Sochi meeting Russian defence officials for a week.
The senior US diplomat was aiming to test Mr Putin’s willingness to make pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine comply with an increasingly fragile ceasefire, according to US officials travelling with him, but the tone ahead of the meeting did not augur well for a breakthrough.
Mr Kerry was also seeking to gauge the status of Russia’s support for embattled Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, whose forces have been losing ground to rebels, and press Moscow to support a political transition that could end that war, the officials said.
In addition, Mr Kerry will make the case to Mr Putin that Russia should not proceed with its planned transfer of an advanced air defence system to Iran.
Mr 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.
Mr Putin’s spokesman welcomed Mr Kerry’s decision to travel to Russia and had another point to make.
He said: “We have repeatedly stated at various levels and the president has said that Russia never initiated the freeze in relations and we are always open for displays of political will for a broader dialogue.”
The rhetoric signalled there would be few breakthroughs on the issues dividing the US and Russia. Nevertheless, both sides stressed the importance of trying to work through some of the rancour that buried president Barack Obama’s first-term effort to “reset” ties with Moscow.
Mr Kerry began his short visit to Sochi by laying a wreath at a Second World War memorial with Mr Lavrov, with whom Mr Kerry has had a warm personal relationship despite tensions over policy.
At a working lunch, Mr Lavrov presented Mr Kerry with tomatoes and potatoes that were “distant” descendants of the two Idaho potatoes Mr Kerry gave him last year, a spokeswoman for Mr Lavrov said.
For his part, Mr Kerry “presented the Russian side with a list of quotations from the Russian media that in his view don’t reflect the real potential of broad Russian-American relations, which he is convinced need to be improved”, according to his spokeswoman.
Following his stop in Sochi, Mr Kerry will travel to Antalya, Turkey, where he will attend a meeting of Nato foreign ministers today.
Mr Kerry will then return to Washington to attend meetings tomorrow with Mr Obama and officials of the Persian Gulf Arab states concerned about the possibility of a nuclear deal with Iran.