US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed on advancing a political settlement to the Syrian conflict, Washington's foreign policy chief said after talks in the Kremlin on March 24, as world leaders push harder to end the fighting in the wake of the Brussels terrorist attacks.
"We agreed on a target schedule for establishing a framework for a political transition and also a draft constitution, and the target is August," Kerry said during a press conference with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. The two countries now had "unanimity about the vision of how we can achieve peace in Syria", he added.
After months of tensions over Russia's military intervention in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad, both Kerry and Putin hailed the US- and Russia-brokered Syrian peace talks currently under way in Geneva.
"We understand that what we have achieved on the Syrian trajectory was only achieved thanks to the position of the political leadership of the United States and the position of President Obama," Putin said.
In his initial consultations with Lavrov, Kerry noted that the cease-fire regime introduced in Syria in late February is still fragile but nonetheless holding.
"We are working closely [with Russia], including the work of the International Support Group for Syria," Kerry said earlier in comments reported by the Russian state newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta. "Very few people believed that progress could be made in the ceasefire in Syria … The ceasefire allowed the renewed flow of humanitarian aid to reach those who could not get it, however, we need to do more, both in terms of reducing the level of violence, and in terms of humanitarian aid," he added.
The sides also discussed the situation in Ukraine and the stalled implementation of the Minsk peace agreements reached in the Belarusian capital in 2015. "As far as Ukraine is concerned, the most important thing that has happened today is the reiteration of the non-alternative character of the political settlement based on the Minsk agreements," Lavrov said.
On his third visit to Russia in the last 12 months, Kerry first met German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who also arrived in Moscow for talks at Lavrov's invitation. The two foreign policy chiefs also discussed the situation in both conflicts. Meanwhile, Lavrov expressed hope that he and Steinmeier could put aside their differences and constructively discuss the international agenda, especially in the light of the growing terror threat.
A day after more than 30 people died in coordinated terrorist attacks in Brussels, Lavrov called on European leaders "not to allow terrorists to administer affairs on the continent", TASS reported. He noted that anti-terrorism cooperation between the EU and Russia was previously frozen and that Moscow is open for talks on this and other issues.
Kerry in turn called the attacks "a violent reminder of what we are trying to do".
Before the talks, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the situation in Russian-US relations remains "uneasy".
"A series of confrontational steps made by Washington under the pretext of the Ukrainian crisis, has dealt a strong blow to cooperation," the ministry said in a statement. The statement cited Washington's suspension in March 2014 of the work of the bilateral presidential commission, the introduction of visa and property sanctions against Russian individuals and legal entities, as well as the reduction inter-departmental dialogue. Bilateral trade turnover shrank by a third in 2015 to $20bn, the ministry noted.
After his talks with Kerry, Lavrov said the Russia and the United States remain divided over a number of global security issues. According to the minister, the two states differ "both on missile defence, the Treaty on the Elimination of the Intermediate and Shorter-Range Missiles (INF Treaty) and on the issue of NATO expansion."
"But the main thing is that we have agreed to intensify the dialogue and make it more substantive in nature and make it stable so that to try to settle these questions, we agreed to continue contacts on all these and other issues on our common agenda," Lavrov added.
The Moscow visits of Steinmeier and Kerry followed the verdict against captured Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko, who a Russian court on March 22 sentenced to 22 years in jail for aiding the killing with mortar fire of two Russian journalists in the Donbas conflict zone in 2014.
The case was also discussed during Kerry's meeting with Putin, after the US secretary of state along with several European leaders called for Savchenko's immediate release. According to Kerry, Putin gave an indication that the matter could be discussed further at a later date. Russia has so far refused to reconsider Savchenko's sentence, although there has been speculation that the pilot could be released in exchange for two captured Russian servicemen held by Ukraine.