U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Secretary Sergey Lavrov in Sochi on Tuesday to discuss the ongoing war in Ukraine, the Syrian civil war and a nuclear deal with Iran, the State Department announced on Monday. The visit to Russia, the first by Kerry since the war began in April 2014, comes amid some of the most violent clashes in recent months and concerns that pro-Russian rebels may be gearing up for a new military assault.
“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,” said the announcement.
Ties between Russia and the West have been strained since the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and the ongoing war in the Donbas region of Ukraine, where Russian forces have been involved militarily, claim NATO and European leaders. (Russia denies this.) Despite a ceasefire coming into force on Feb. 15, few days have passed when Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian forces have not clashed, and deadly skirmishes near to the de facto rebel capital city of Donetsk and the economically important port of Mariupol have threatened to completely unravel the entire Minsk II agreement.
According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is charged with overseeing the ceasefire, belligerents last week used Grad rockets, a powerful, indiscriminate weapon that can kill vast numbers of enemy soldiers, as well as civilians if it hits nonmilitary areas. That may be a sign that any semblance of peace could be about to end.
The visit of Kerry to Russia comes just a day after Angela Merkel met Vladimir Putin in Moscow to discuss the conflict in Ukraine. The German chancellor had snubbed the Victory Day parade, along with other Western leaders, the day earlier, but laid a large bouquet of flowers on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier along the Kremlin wall. While Merkel called the annexation of Crimea “criminal” and “illegal,” she also paid tribute to the “Russian nation” for the “losses and atrocities” it suffered in World War II. “It is important for me to pay tribute to the fallen soldiers,” said Merkel at a press conference. The Russian president struck a conciliatory tone, saying, "We do face some problems today, but the sooner we can end their negative impact on our relations, the better it will be.”
Kerry also will meet with NATO foreign ministers in Turkey on Wednesday, for talks that will focus on the threat posed by renewed Russian hostility at the Eastern border of the alliance.