MOSCOW — Secretary of State John F. Kerry met with Russian President Vladimir Putin for more than four hours on Tuesday, marking a high-profile attempt to ease tensions between Russia and the West as relations have deteriorated to their worst level since the Cold War.
The talks in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi yielded no major breakthroughs on a variety of shared concerns, including Ukraine, a nuclear deal with Iran and the Islamic State’s gains in Syria. But in strikingly warm comments after the meeting, Kerry praised Putin for having agreed to meet in the first place.
Kerry was the most senior U.S. official to visit Russia since the crisis in Ukraine started last year, rekindling antagonism reminiscent of Soviet times. But both sides appeared pleased with Tuesday’s talks, which included four additional hours of discussion between Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
“We rarely get to speak as honestly as we did today,” Kerry said. “This was an important visit at an important time. We didn’t come here with an expectation that we would be able to define a specific path forward with respect to one crisis or another.”
Kerry had not visited Russia since May 2013, as Moscow’s decision to grant asylum to former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden effectively put an end to high-level contacts. Russia’s subsequent annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and support for rebels in eastern Ukraine put relations in a deep freeze.
The quick trip on Tuesday appeared to be a new effort to rekindle cooperation in areas where the United States and Russia might be able to work together, even if ongoing fighting in Ukraine remains an open sore. Talks with Iran on a nuclear deal are in their final, crucial weeks. Both the United States and Russia fear the rise of the Islamic State in Syria, while Russia is also a major supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is battling a four-year-old uprising.
And on Ukraine, U.S. officials have said they want to press Russia to ensure that the pro-Kremlin rebels observe the terms of a shaky peace plan forged earlier this year.
“We did not come to common ground on all issues, but today’s meeting helped us get a better understanding of each other,” Lavrov said. “President Putin today called upon us to ensure close cooperation, taking into consideration our mutual opinions and interests.”
Both sides said that only political efforts, not armed conflict, will resolve the Ukraine crisis, a position they have held publicly for months. The United States and its European allies have tied any rollback of international sanctions against Russia to the full implementation of the peace deal. That agreement foresees autonomy for rebel-held eastern Ukraine but also the territory’s eventual reintegration under Kiev’s control.
Kerry made no mention Tuesday of Crimea, saying instead that “it is clear the U.S. and E.U. sanctions will begin to be rolled back” if the Ukrainian peace deal is fully implemented.
Ahead of the meetings, administration officials had been cautious about raising expectations. Kerry had canceled a trip to Russia earlier this year because of violence in eastern Ukraine, where the government says more than 8,000 people have been killed.
The Obama administration’s chief negotiator on the Iran deal, Undersecretary of State Wendy R. Sherman, sat to Kerry’s left during the discussions with Putin, signaling the key focus of the meetings.
Sherman planned to travel onward to Vienna, where further negotiations with Iran were set to begin Wednesday. The deadline for a comprehensive deal on Iran’s nuclear program is six weeks away.
Kerry’s visit was the second trip to Russia by a senior Western official this week — a boost to Putin, who puts a premium on signs of respect from the West. German Chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to Moscow on Sunday to join World War II commemorations after snubbing Putin a day earlier by skipping the Kremlin’s vast military parade marking the defeat of Nazi Germany.
“For Putin, this is a mark of respect,” said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank. In the Kremlin’s view, he said, “this basically shows that Russia is anything but isolated, that Western leaders are reaching out.”
But Putin’s meeting with Merkel ended in barbs between the two leaders, suggesting that the Russian leader is in no mood to back down on Ukraine despite more than a year of Western economic sanctions.
Putin made no public statement on Tuesday. But at the military parade on Saturday, he condemned attempts to build a “unipolar” world — a byword for U.S. domination.
Before Tuesday’s meetings, Kerry and Lavrov laid wreaths at a World War II memorial to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Allied victory in Europe.
Despite the lack of any major breakthroughs, the meetings still could mark the beginning of a gradual warming of relations, said Angela Stent, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies.
“Because of the lack of trust that has been so patent since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, it was adversely affecting other issues,” she said. “The White House, the State Department, the administration have all realized that U.S.-Russian relations are worse than they have been at any time since [Mikhail] Gorbachev came to power. We’re not getting anywhere in Ukraine, but there are other issues, like Syria and Iran, where we need to work together.”
Morello reported from Washington.