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Kerry to Focus on Syria, Ukraine During Russia Trip

  • Pamela Dockins

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry takes part in an international conference on Libya, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rome, Dec. 13, 2015.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry takes part in an international conference on Libya, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rome, Dec. 13, 2015.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will use a visit to Russia to frame the next meeting of the International Syria Support Group, which is expected to take place Friday in New York, a senior State Department official said.

The official said Kerry also will discuss efforts to get full implementation of the Minsk agreement, which includes a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine and a withdrawal of heavy weapons by both the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatists.

The official spoke Monday, a day before Kerry’s talks with Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The visit is Kerry’s second to Russia this year.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks to the media about a Russian jet fighter being shot down by Turkish forces, in Sochi, Russia, Nov. 24, 2015.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks to the media about a Russian jet fighter being shot down by Turkish forces, in Sochi, Russia, Nov. 24, 2015.

Gaps remain

While Russia and the United States are part of the International Syria Support Group, which has held two rounds of talks in Vienna, the two have struggled to bridge gaps on how to resolve the crisis.

Russia backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while the United States says Assad should not be part of any long-term political solution to Syria’s crisis.

Also, a U.S.-led coalition and Russia both have launched airstrikes against militant targets in Syria. The United States has repeatedly criticized Russia, though, saying most of its strikes have not targeted the so-called Islamic State extremists.

On Thursday, representatives of Syrian opposition groups met in Riyadh and agreed on a broad plan that includes holding talks on a political transition with Assad’s government in early January. But it remains unclear if Assad is on board with the plan.

“Assad is still making the kinds of negative noises that Russia needs to discuss with him,” said the senior State Department official. “Like after the Riyadh conference, he put down some markers about who he would and would not negotiate with."

The official also said Kerry would discuss a possible cease-fire in Syria with Russian officials, and he would again raise U.S. concerns that Russia needs to focus its military operation on Islamic State militants.

The Russian Foreign Ministry's comments about the Kerry visit were measured.

“The situation surrounding the Russian-American relationship remains complicated,” the ministry said. “Russia has consistently pointed to the need to observe the principles of equality, mutual respect, and non-interference.”

No Ukraine deals

Concerning Ukraine, the senior State Department official said Kerry would address “challenges” in recent weeks in enforcing a cease-fire between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed rebels.

Also, the talks come at a time when there have been reports that Russia is considering using its clout with Assad to get relief from U.S. and European sanctions that were imposed for its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

The State Department official said the United States, however, has made its position “absolutely clear.”

“We are not playing, ‘Let’s Make a Deal’ here, trading Ukraine for Syria,” said the official. "These are distinct issues with distinct paths forward.”

The official’s comments echoed remarks made by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who visited Ukraine earlier this month. He drew applause from Ukrainian lawmakers when he said the United States would never recognize “Russia's attempt to annex Crimea.”

Kerry travels to Moscow from Paris, where he is attending a closed-door ministerial meeting on Syria. Western allies Germany, Italy and Britain were to attend the talks, along with regional players in the conflict, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

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