Kerry Seeks Common Ground With Russia on Syria, Ukraine

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov listens to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, during their meeting in Moscow Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015. Kerry arrives in Moscow to hold talks with Lavrov and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov listens to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, (R), during their meeting in Moscow on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

The United States and Russia need to find “common ground” to both end Syria’s civil war and restore stability in Eastern Ukraine, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday.

During opening talks in Moscow with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, before meeting with President Vladimir Putin, Kerry said the world benefits when great powers agree in their approaches to major crises.

“Even when there have been differences between us, we have been able to work effectively on specific issues,” Kerry said, as he began what are expected to be difficult discussions in the Russian capital. “Today, I hope we can find some common ground.”

Russia and the U.S. are at odds over the mechanics of a political transition aimed at halting the war in Syria, as well as the military approach to fighting the Islamic State terror group. The results of Tuesday’s meetings will determine whether or not a new international diplomatic conference on Syria will go ahead as planned on Friday at the United Nations.

Lavrov noted “outstanding issues” with the U.S. on the Syrian political transition that is supposed to bring representatives of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government together with the opposition for negotiations by early January.

Kerry praised Moscow for having been “a significant contributor to the progress that we have been able to make” on Syria and said the U.S. and Russia both believe the Islamic State group must be eliminated.

“Russia and the United States agree that this is a threat to everybody, to every country,” he said. “They are the worst of terrorists. They attack culture and history and all decency. It leaves no choice but for civilized nations to stand together, to fight and destroy them.”

However, ahead of his arrival, Russia’s foreign ministry said Moscow would be looking for a “revision” in U.S. policy “dividing terrorists into ‘bad’ and ‘good’ ones,” i.e. Islamic State terrorists as bad and the anti-Assad rebels as good. Russia also complained that the U.S. was unwilling to engage in “full-fledged coordination” between the two powers’ militaries while both are conducting airstrikes in Syria.

Russia says its airstrikes since late September have targeted the Islamic State, but Western governments claim Moscow is bombing mostly moderate Syrian rebels and is primarily concerned with shoring up Assad.

Assad’s future and his potential role in the political transition will be prime topics of Kerry’s conversations with Putin and Lavrov.

Russia has consistently said Assad’s future is for the Syrian people to decide, while the U.S. and many of its allies insist that he go, although they have softened their stance somewhat to allow Assad to play a temporary but as-yet undefined role in the transition. Syrian opposition groups, however, demand that Assad leave at the start of the process.

Kerry’s trip to Moscow is his second to Russia this year — he met with Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in May — but his first since frosty relations over the Ukraine and over Russia’s annexation of Crimea were exacerbated by Moscow’s intervention in Syria in late September.

President Barack Obama has seen Putin briefly twice since then, at summits in Turkey and France.

Regarding the Ukraine, the two countries are split over the implementation of a February agreement meant to end hostilities between the Kiev government and Russian-backed separatists in the eastern region. Lavrov says the U.S. should use its influence with the government in Kiev to settle the conflict with the separatists – by getting all sides to respect the shaky cease-fire, and by moving ahead with political reforms in the area.

Kerry opined that “nothing would please us more than to resolve the differences on Ukraine” but there was little sign of a meeting of the minds on that issue. The U.S. and its European allies have imposed sanctions on Russia for its continued support of the separatists.

Kerry is asking for Russia’s full implementation of the February cease-fire in exchange for sanctions relief. That truce called for the removal of heavy weaponry from front lines, a Russian troop withdrawal, the release of detainees, and full access for international monitors.

Lavrov, however, put the responsibility for a resolution squarely on Washington.

“Of course, we would like to continue the dialogue … on how the United States can assist with the Ukrainian settlement,” he said. “Given the U.S. influence on Kiev, it would be a positive factor.”

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