MOSCOW - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in their first meeting since the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea and support for rebels fighting in east Ukraine sparked the worst tensions with the West since the Cold War. But, the tone of Tuesday's meeting was conciliatory.
Secretary of State Kerry met Putin at his residence in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi, the host of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Their meeting lasted nearly four hours and followed a separate meeting between Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The two sides discussed cooperation on Iran's nuclear program as well as the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, and they raised hopes for a thaw in bilateral relations.
While acknowledging differences over Syria and the cause of the conflict in Ukraine, they agreed there must be political solutions.
"From the Geneva communique to the removal of Syria's chemical weapons,” said Kerry, “I would emphasize that we have seen what happens when Russia and the United States work together.” He added that “It is clearly possible to make real progress and make important things happen."
Cooperation to halt Iran's nuclear program hit a bump when Russia announced plans to sell missile defense systems to Tehran. Kerry did not raise the issue during the Sochi meeting but said the U.S. position was well known and had been discussed on other occasions.
On Syria, Kerry said there could be no solution without a negotiated political transition from President Bashar al-Assad, who receives key support from Russia.
Russia denies sending military aid to Ukraine's rebels, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, and blames the U.S. for supporting the government in Kyiv.
But after Tuesday's meetings, both Kerry and Lavrov stressed where the two sides held common views.
"There are certain disagreements between Russia and the U.S. about the genesis of this crisis [in Ukraine] and current estimations of its development,” said Lavrov. Still, the Russian foreign minister said he and his U.S. counterpart “were united in the opinion that it should be solved only in a peaceful way."
The meetings came the same day a Russian opposition report released in Moscow claimed the Kremlin had spent billions funding Ukraine's rebels and sending its own forces into the battle.
The report also claims relatives of over 200 Russian troops recently killed in Ukraine were threatened or paid to keep silent.
“Huge political harm has been done to Russia as the result of the geopolitical shady enterprise which was started by Putin in eastern Ukraine,” says opposition activist Ilya Yashin.
The report, titled “Putin. War,” was the work of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down in February just meters from the Kremlin.
Since fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine a year ago, more than 6,000 have been killed, despite several shaky ceasefires.
But fears of a new surge in violence are overblown because the Kremlin's mood is shifting to accommodation, says the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, Dmitri Trenin.
“No major offensive is possible,” says Trenin, “absent a Russian nod or Russian acquiescence. And, this I don't think will be given under the present circumstances.”
Political analysts say visits like Secretary Kerry's are welcomed in Russia because, despite the Kremlin's actions in Ukraine, Putin wants to portray his government as a peacemaker open to dialogue.
He also wants a return to the Soviet-era treatment of Russia, when it was respected as an equivalent but alternative voice to the United States in global affairs.
But during the May 9th “Victory Day” commemorations in Moscow marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two, Russia's military might was on full display as missiles and tanks rolled through Red Square.
While Putin demonstrated a warning to those who would challenge Russia's interests, Western leaders skipped the parade because of Ukraine.
But Kerry followed in the footsteps of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and laid a wreath at a World War II memorial.
Both Kerry and Lavrov began their joint press conference Tuesday voicing respect for those sacrificed in World War II, as well as the wartime alliance between the United States and Russia, which was then part of the Soviet Union.
Watch related video report from Mary Alice Salinas: