MOSCOW - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian President Vladimir Putin say that cooperation between the two countries has been instrumental in achieving an unexpectedly successful cessation of hostilities in war-torn Syria
Kerry and Putin spoke before going into talks at the Kremlin on the way forward in Syria, on terrorism and the situation in Ukraine
Putin welcomed Kerry with praise for U.S. leadership in Syria: "We are aware that the groundwork we have on Syria has only been possible by the supreme political leadership of the United States, specifically by the leadership of President Obama."
Kerry said it is fair to say that cooperation between the United States and Russia has made it possible for Syrians to “taste and smell” what it means to have a reduction of violence and a resumption of some humanitarian aid deliveries after five years of bloodshed.
"Mr. President," Kerry said to Putin, "I know you have ideas, and you've already made a very critical decision with respect to draw down forces in Syria. We obviously also have ideas on how we can now, most effectively, make progress in [the United Nations talks in] Geneva, and then the very serious and difficult work of the decision."
Kerry also began the talks with Putin on a positive and optimistic note, saying: "I look forward much to the opportunity tonight to be able to find a way forward, and frankly, ultimately to see if we can rebuild the relationship between the Untied States and Russia by proving we can solve some serious problems together and building from there."
Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are set to hold a joint news conference later Thursday after talks between Kerry and Putin.
The remarks began with Putin joking about Kerry having to carry his own briefcase in Moscow. Kerry responded, saying he would show Putin what is in his briefcase when they have a private moment, adding that he thinks Putin “will be surprised.”
Earlier Thursday, both Kerry and Putin met separately with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, viewed by some as a sign of Russia’s increased influence as a power-broker in the Middle East.
Kerry also met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. He said that a partial cease-fire in Syria had been beneficial in reducing levels of violence there, but more remained to be done in terms of both a reduction of violence and the flow of humanitarian aid.
Kerry said that the cessation in hostilities has produced the first significant flow of humanitarian assistance to people, some whom had not seen assistance in several years.
The talks in Moscow, added Kerry, can help bring the conflict in Syria to an end as quickly as possible. He also said he hoped for cooperation from Russia in dealing with other conflicts, namely those in Yemen and Libya and the Middle East peace process.
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.”
A senior State Department 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.
He 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.
Kerry is also likely to discuss Tuesday’s attacks in Brussels, which he has 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.
The continued fighting in Ukraine is also likely to be a focus of Kerry’s talks with Putin. Kerry said: "We also have some ideas on how we can make faster some progress on ideas with respect to 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.
Nadiya Savchenko release
The senior State Department official told reporters Kerry will definitely raise the issue of the jailed 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.
Civil society, NASA
Kerry began his trip Wednesday by holding a roundtable with young members of civil society at Spaso House, the residence of the American Ambassador in Moscow. This was the first time Kerry has had a chance to meet with young Russian professionals from all walks of life.
Also Thursday, Kerry is meeting with NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and with American astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent one year in space. NASA has worked with Russia on transit to and from the International Space Station since retiring the last of the U.S. space shuttles in 2011.