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Kerry Flies To Russia To Discuss Ukraine, Syria Conflicts With Putin


The last time the world's attention was focused on the resort town of Sochi, it was the Winter Olympics. Then shortly after the games, Russia annexed Crimea and sent troops and tanks into eastern Ukraine. The West reacted with economic sanctions that helped push Russia into recession and today, another turn. The U.S. Secretary of State is in Sochi to meet with Russia's president. NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with Secretary John Kerry and joins us now from Sochi. Good morning.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And, Michele, why is this meeting with President Vladimir Putin happening now?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, he's been trying to come to Russia for quite some time. He's a true believer in face-to-face diplomacy and keeping lines open with Russia. And Kerry has met a number of times since the conflict began in Ukraine with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who's also here in Sochi. But Vladimir Putin is the one who calls the shots in Russia. He's known to have a very tight-knit circle of advisers, so this is Kerry's chance - at least the secretary is hoping to have a chance to make sure that Putin understands what the U.S. and the world think about Ukraine and many other issues.

MONTAGNE: Do then the U.S. and also Russia see this as a moment to actually get something done in Ukraine?

KELEMEN: You know, the State Department recently raised concerns that the Russians are actually moving in more heavy equipment, conducting more advanced training exercises with separatists in eastern Ukraine so there's actually a fear that things could heat up again. There is a peace plan on the books. Kerry is reminding Putin that Russia could get some sanctions relief if Moscow implements that deal. Judging from the Russian statements ahead of this meeting, I'm not sure Kerry will get very far. The Russian Foreign Ministry said the U.S. is, quote, "groundlessly blaming Russia for the crisis in Ukraine" and has again tried to shift the blame to the U.S. not only for Ukraine, but also for the downturn in U.S.-Russian relations at large. So State Department officials on the way here said simply they don't want to get in a dispute with the Russian narrative, and they also don't want to, you know, ruin the atmosphere ahead of the talks.

MONTAGNE: There's another peace process that could be on the table, I suppose. The last time Kerry went to Russia two years ago, they agreed to try to revive a peace process in Syria. Will that be something they're talking about this time?

KELEMEN: Definitely. The U.S. has tried for years now to get the Russians to put pressure on Syrian President Bashaar al-Assad to agree to a political transition, and Kerry is making that case again. The conflict in Syria is only getting worse. The rise of ISIS, the self-proclaimed Islamic State, is a threat, for instance, both to the U.S. and to Russia, though the Russians aren't part of the anti-ISIS coalition. The other big issue, Renee, is chemical weapons use in Syria. It was the U.S. and Russia that agreed to work together to rid Syria of its declared stockpiles of chemical weapons. But since then, Assad's forces have been blamed for chlorine gas attacks on rebel-held areas, and the U.S. has been trying to get the U.N. Security Council to act on that issue.

MONTAGNE: Well, as much as the U.S. seems to want to isolate Russia, apparently it doesn't need Moscow on any of these issues. So what are the chances of the two countries actually getting together to work together?

KELEMEN: Well, they have worked together on Iran, and this is a critical time on that front, too. The June 30 deadline is looming for a nuclear deal. Russia is part of the discussions. Kerry wants to make sure that all the negotiating partners remain united ahead of that deadline. And the head of the U.S. negotiating team, Wendy Sherman, is here in Sochi, too, for these meetings.

MONTAGNE: Michele, thanks very much.

KELEMEN: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen in Sochi, Russia, traveling with Secretary of State John Kerry.


Now, Secretary Kerry is meeting with President Putin amid new allegations about Russia's behavior. To be precise, it's a claim of new evidence of just how deeply Russia is involved in Ukraine. A report from activists opposed to President Putin says more than 200 Russian soldiers have been killed fighting in eastern Ukraine.

MONTAGNE: They're described as soldiers who formally quit the Russian army before crossing into Ukraine. Russia continues denying that its forces are fighting alongside pro-Russian separatists. The investigation was begun by Boris Nemtsov. He was a Kremlin critic who was shot dead in central Moscow back in February. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.