Kerry, Putin meet to ease tension between US and Russia
SOCHI: US Secretary of State John Kerry met on Tuesday Russian President Vladimir Putin in a bid to ease badly strained relations over the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, but the tone ahead of the meeting didn`t augur well for a breakthrough on any of the many issues dividing the two powers.

On his first trip to Russia since the Ukraine crisis began, Kerry held more than four hours of tall(s with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at a hotel in the Black Sea resort of Sochi before seeing Putin at his presidential residence in the city.

Putin is in Sochi meeting with Russian defence officials for a week.

The top US diplomat plans to test Putin`s willingness to make pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine comply with an increasingly fragile ceasefire agreement, according to US of ficials traveling with him.

Kerry will also seek to gauge the status of Russia`s support for embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces have been losing ground to rebels, and press Moscow to support a political transition that could end that war, the officials said.

In addition, Kerry will make the case to Putin that Russia should not proceed with its planned transfer of an advanced air defense system to Iran. Kerry`s trip comes at a time when relations between Washington and Moscow have plummeted to post-Cold War lows amid the disagreements over Ukraine and Syria.

In a sign of the considerable strains, the Kremlin would not confirm Kerry`s meeting with Putin until just an hour before he arrived in Sochi, a full day after US officials had announced it.

And Russia`s Foreign Ministry had previewed the talks by blaming Washington for the breakdown in relations. Putin`s spokesman welcomed Kerry`s decision to travel to Russia but with a point. `We have repeatedly stated at various levels and the president has said that Russia never initiated the freeze in relations and we are always open for displays of political will for a broader dialogue,` Dmitry Peskov told journalists in Sochi.

The rhetoric signalled there would be few breakthroughs if any on the many issues dividing the US and Russia. Nevertheless, both sides stressed the importance of trying to work through some of the rancor that buried President Barack Obama`s first-term effort to `reset` ties with Moscow.

Kerry began his short visit to Sochi by laying a wreath at a World War II memorial with Lavrov, with whom Kerry has had a warm personal relationship despite tensions over policy.

At a working lunch, Lavrov presented Kerry with tomatoes and potatoes that were `distant` descendants of the two Idaho potatoes that Kerry gave him last year, a spokeswoman for Lavrov said. For his part, Kerry `presented the Russian side with a list of quotations from the Russian media that in his view don`t reflect the real potential of broad Russian American relations, which he is convinced need to be improved, spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on her Facebook page.

Improving ties, however, hinges largely on violence decreasing in Ukraine, however. The Western backed government in Kiev continues to be embroiled in a sporadic conflict between government and separatist rebel forces despite a cease-fire agreement sealed in mid February. Russia was party to that deal; although the US was not, one State Department official said it is important for Putin `to hear directly from the United States that we are firmly committed to (its) implementation`.-AP

Published in Dawn