Kerry Putin meeting
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for a combined eight hours on Tuesday, in what representatives of each side called a step in the right direction. Reuters/Joshua Roberts

The meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday is a step toward bringing U.S.-Russia relations “back to normal” following mounting tensions over the past few years, a Kremlin official said on Tuesday, adding that talks were friendly and businesslike.

No groundbreaking agreements emerged from discussions, which both sides said were not the goal of the meetings. It was the Kerry and Putin’s first get-together since 2013, before a popular pro-European uprising in Ukraine caused pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country and Russia to occupy, then annex, Crimea. With relations at their lowest ebb in 25 years, the talks appeared to be more of an attempt to maintain at least some semblance of cooperation following a year of sanctions, rhetoric and flexing of military muscle that many called the opening salvo of a new Cold War.

With the June 30 deadline for a final nuclear deal with Iran looming, Syria in ruins and a fragile ceasefire barely holding in Ukraine, a working relationship between the two is crucial. That notion wasn't lost on either Tuesday, as Kerry called progress in the P5+1 talks over Iran’s nuclear program proof that Russo-American could cooperate in matters of global importance.

“We have seen what happens when Russia and the United States work together. It is clearly possibly to make real progress and make important things happen,” he said.

Kerry first met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and laid a wreath at the Zavokzalny War Memorial in Sochi before Putin joined him. The Russian president reportedly confirmed he would meet with Kerry only an hour before they shook hands. Kerry spoke with Putin and Lavrov for a combined eight hours.

Regarding Ukraine and Syria, the three men all agreed that fighting can be stopped only through political means. Each called for strict adherence to the Minsk Accords, a set of peace agreements made in Ukraine in February. Kerry said that sanctions would be lifted on Russia only if pro-Russian rebels maintained the ceasefire and dropped a not-so-subtle hint concerning Russia’s alleged influence over the rebels.

“Anybody who has any control over anybody [in Ukraine] needs to take every step possible to fully implement” the ceasefire requirements of the Minsk Accords, he said in a press conference following the meetings, according to USA TODAY.

Kerry had no formal message from Obama to Putin but said the American president was pleased that the meeting was taking place. No plans for a meeting of the two leaders were discussed, but Kremlin spokesman Yuri Ushakov hinted that they might talk in September or November during either the annual G-20 or United Nations General Assembly meeting.

“Our president proceeded in the conversation from our fundamental interest in seeing bilateral relations get back to normal,” said Ushakov. “As it was emphasized, it meets the interests of Russia, and we hope the interests of the U.S., and is extremely important from the point of view of ensuring international stability and security.”

Kerry, President Obama and a score of other Western leaders declined invitations by Putin to attend the massive Victory Day parade in Moscow that marked the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany, protesting Russia’s alleged support of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. Putin called that decision disrespectful to the millions of Soviet citizens who died during World War II. Tuesday’s meetings were seen by some as an attempt to counter some of that criticism.

Kerry subsequently flew to Antalya, Turkey, for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers. He plans to meet with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin there to discuss his meeting with Lavrov and Putin.