U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives at Vnukovo international airport near Moscow, Russia, March 23, 2016.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives at Vnukovo international airport near Moscow, Russia, March 23, 2016.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Moscow to discuss the crisis situations in Ukraine and Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the Kremlin. They are also likely to discuss Tuesday’s attacks in Brussels, which Secretary Kerry called an assault against the Belgian people and against the very heart of Europe.

A senior State Department official told reporters traveling with Kerry that the secretary views the Brussels attacks as part of the larger threat posed by the Islamic State militant group, which claimed responsibility for the bombings in the Belgian capital.

‘A moment to seize'

On Syria, the official said Kerry wants to hear how Putin and Lavrov view the current status of efforts towards a political transition away from the leadership of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The official made clear that the U.S. position remains that Assad must step down in order for there to be a viable path to peace after five years of bloodshed in Syria.

This is the first high-level, in-person meeting between U.S. and Russian officials since Moscow announced a partial withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria last week. In announcing the trip, Kerry said: “We have reached a very important stage in this process. This is a moment to seize, not waste.”

The senior State Department official said now that the cessation of hostilities in Syria is going better than many expected, and since Russia is reducing its “footprint” in Syria, Kerry wants the U.S. and Russia to move forward on a political transition there. Putin has had recent conversations with Assad, the official said, and is likely to have a sense of where the process stands.

Members of self-defense battalions take part in a
Members of self-defense battalions take part in a rally to commemorate demonstrators who were killed during the Maidan protests in 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine, Feb. 20, 2016.

Ukraine fighting drags on

On Ukraine, the senior State Department official told reporters President Barack Obama and Kerry are concerned by the recent sharp increase in violations of the cease-fire, and want to see all elements of the Minsk Agreements implemented this year.

The agreements represent a package of measures meant to reduce the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. They also authorize the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) access to monitor and verify the cease-fire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the separatist-controlled side of eastern Ukraine.

Beginning in February 2014, Russia orchestrated a military intervention and ultimately annexed Crimea a few weeks later, a move that was condemned by the international community which hit Moscow with sanctions. Russia is pushing hard in Europe for an end to the sanctions.

People take part in a rally in central Kyiv, Ukrai
People take part in a rally in central Kyiv, Ukraine, demanding liberation of Ukrainian army pilot Nadezhda Savchenko by Russia, March 6, 2016.

US Calls for Nadiya Savchenko's release

The senior State Department official told reporters Kerry will definitely raise the issue of the jailed female Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko.

Savchenko was sentenced Tuesday by a Russian court to 22 years of imprisonment. The pilot was taken hostage by Russia in 2014 and has been on a hunger strike since early March to protest the Russian criminal case against her. The State Department said it is extremely concerned about her sentence because her health is imperiled. She has reportedly endured interrogation, solitary confinement and forced “psychiatric evaluation.” Kerry will again call on Russia to immediately release Savchenko and other unlawfully detained people.

Kerry begins his trip Wednesday by holding a roundtable with young members of civil society at Spaso House. This is the first time for Kerry to meet with young Russian professionals from all walks of life.

On Wednesday evening, Kerry with meet and have dinner with German Foreign Minister Steinmeier, who will have finished his own meetings with Russian leaders. Kerry and Steinmeier will discuss the terrorist attacks in Belgium, efforts to defeat Islamic State and towards achieving peace in Syria. That meeting will not be open to the media.

On Thursday, Kerry will meet with NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden before meeting and having lunch with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Later Thursday afternoon, Kerry is set to have a closed meeting with American astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent one year in space.

Thursday evening, Kerry will meet with Russian President Putin, before holding a joint news conference with Lavrov at the Kremlin at the end of the visit.