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Syria, Iran and Ukraine Top Agenda for Kerry's Russian Meetings

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shake hands after making statements following meetings regarding Syria, at a news conference in Geneva September 14, 2013.

The last time U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, it was two years ago to announce an international conference aimed at stemming the spiraling bloodshed in Syria.

Fast forward to Tuesday, when Kerry is scheduled to meet with Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss Syria’s continuing misery. Iran is also on the agenda, U.S. officials said, as is Ukraine.

Putin may be persona non grata in many Western capitals these days thanks to the annexation of Crimea and the Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that Moscow’s influence, while diminished from Soviet days, is still important for many of the world’s tangled problems, analysts said.

“This is a recognition that Russia still has a major role to play in these” places, said Angela Stent, a former National Intelligence Council officer who now teaches at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. “We may not get full cooperation, but we at least want Russia to not obstruct on these issues.”

The announcement that Kerry would meet with Putin came from the U.S. State Department on Monday morning.

“This trip is part of our ongoing effort to maintain direct lines of communication with senior Russian officials and to ensure U.S. views are clearly conveyed,” the statement said.

Notably, there was no Kremlin announcement about whether Putin would in fact meet the U.S. diplomat.

The Foreign Ministry, in a statement published Monday in Russian, mentioned only the meeting with Lavrov, to take place in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, and made an effort to swipe at the United States.

“At the current time, Russian-American relations are experiencing a difficult period, caused by the purposefully unfriendly actions of Washington,” the ministry said.

Isolation and Sanctions

For the past year, where Russia’s been concerned, isolation and sanctions have been the order of the day for the United States and the European Union to punish the Kremlin for its actions in Ukraine.

Washington and its European allies very publicly snubbed Putin this weekend by not sending leaders to Moscow for the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Yet, one day after Red Square was filled with thousands of marching soldiers, advanced weaponry and triumphant rhetoric, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in Moscow meeting with Putin, scolding him for “the criminal and illegal annexation of Crimea and the warfare in eastern Ukraine [which] has led to a serious setback for this cooperation.”

From Washington’s side, Syria’s chaos may offer one way to rekindle cooperation. The civil war, now in its fourth year, grinds on, with a death toll surpassing 220,000, according to United Nations estimates, and hundreds of thousands of refugees. The conflict continues to pull in radical Islamic fighters and fuels the Islamic State militant group that holds swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria.

The Kremlin’s patronage for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad also continues, with Russia eager to retain access to the Mediterranean port of Tartus for its naval vessels. Moscow fears that the battle-hardened Chechen fighters who have helped fuel the Islamic State’s advances will return to restart the now-dormant insurgency in Russia’s North Caucasus.

Add to the calculus Iran, which is both a stalwart backer of Assad and a fickle ally of Moscow. Russia has supplied lucrative nuclear technology to Tehran and recently announced the sale of advanced S-300 air defense missiles.

If anything, Kerry’s visit may signal new momentum for a political resolution, particularly if the Russians push Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to agree to some power sharing arrangement with the opposition, said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, a think-tank in Qatar.

“The Russians have been at it for a while,” Shaikh said. Kerry’s meeting “is an indication that the United States is getting more serious about a diplomatic track, and it’s timely.

“It may be a small glimmer, but it’s the basis to have a small conversation, and I do believe that Russians have been pressuring the Assad regime to allow some sort of power sharing,” he said.

Russia-US Cooperation

Even before the crisis in Ukraine erupted last year, Washington’s ties with Russia had been moving away from the “reset” that the Obama administration had sought in the wake of the 2008 Russian-Georgia war.

At the same time, both U.S. and Russian officials emphasized overlapping interests: fighting terrorism and Islamic extremism; preventing nuclear proliferation; stemming the illegal drug trade.

Syria’s misery brought the two sides closer: Washington and Moscow collaborated to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. Kerry's meeting with Putin in Moscow two years ago was to announce an international conference to try to end the war. The conference, held in February 2014, ended up foundering over the issue of whether a transitional administration in Syria would include Assad.

Syria aside, Monday’s meeting may be a broader effort to reestablish working communication since bilateral ties have been driven to a dangerous low by Ukraine, said Thomas Graham, a former Russia officer with the U.S. National Security Council.

Kerry is likely bringing some sort of message— oral or written— from Obama, to be conveyed to Putin, Graham said. It’s also significant that the meeting comes two days after Merkel met with Putin, he said.

“Look, you have to talk to other countries even if you have serious issues with them,” said Graham, now managing director at Kissinger Associates, a New York-based consultancy group. “How are you going manage this relationship if you’re not talking to the Russians when everyone else is talking to them?”

“A normal relationship doesn’t mean that you agree on everything,” he said.

In the end, Kerry’s meeting likely signals pragmatism on the part of the Obama administration, analysts said.

The Kremlin is looking for a way to move forward from Ukraine and re-engage with the White House. Cooperating on Syria and Iran benefits both sides, and it provides the Obama administration badly need help in untangling nettlesome foreign policy crises.

“We’ve always said we’re open to an off ramp,” Stent said. “I guess this does qualify as an off ramp.”