US and Russia seek closer path on Syria, Ukraine

US and Russia seek closer path on Syria, Ukraine
By bne IntelliNews December 15, 2015

Moscow and Washington sought to put some fresh shine on relations sullied by events in Ukraine on December 15, with President Vladimir Putin praising US efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict and US Secretary of State John Kerry saying that the sides "see Syria fundamentally very similarly".

Following 3.5 hours talks in the Kremlin, Kerry said the sides had been "honest with differences" but in general agree that the crisis in the Middle Eastern country "requires political process".

"We see Syria fundamentally very similarly, we want the same outcomes, we see the same dangers, we understand the same challenges," Kerry said, stressing that the US stands ready to work with Russia.

In only a few words made public during the meeting, Putin said there were "outstanding issues" around Syria but acknowledged the striving of the US Secretary of State "to settle a number of very acute problems".

The sides also struck a conciliatory if cautious note on Ukraine, the main cause of the plummet in bilateral relations after Russia occupied and annexed Crimea in early 2014 and supported an ensuing rebellion in the eastern Donbas region. In stark contrast with earlier statements, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Kerry that US influence could be "good thing" for the settlement of the Ukraine conflict.

Lavrov also confirmed that a meeting of world powers on Syria scheduled to take place in New York on December 18 would go ahead. A project for a resolution on Syria is expected to be ready for presentation to the UN Security Council after the meeting, Lavrov said. "We met here today not as Russia and the US behind the back of other members of the international group on Syrian support, but as co-chairs of this group," he added.

Shortly before the talks, Lavrov's ministry criticised the US-led coalition operating in Syria merely "imitates a fight" against the Islamic State (IS) terrorist network in Syria and has done little to curb the outflow of oil trafficked by the terrorist organisation.Washington is also unwilling to engage in "full-fledged coordination" between the militaries of both countries, claimed the ministry, which also says the US has to stop its separation between "good and bad terrorists".

Now in the twelfth week of its air campaign against the IS and forces opposed to the Syrian government, Russia remains a staunch ally of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. The US has sought his removal from power, citing use of chemical weapons on the population and indiscriminate bombing of inhabited areas. However, Washington has lately indicated there may be some temporary role for him still.

Russia says its airstrikes since late September have targeted the IS, but Western governments claim Moscow is mainly targeting moderate Syrian rebels and is primarily intent on bolstering Assad.

After the talks, Kerry said both Moscow and Washington are "focused on political process" and that "Syrians will be making decisions on the future of Syria". The sides also found common ground on which opposition groups should participate in the Syrian peace talks, he added.

Kerry last visited Russia on May 12 when he met Putin met at his residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi for talks that lasted four hours. Putin also met with Obama several times in recent months at international events, most recently on the sidelines of the Paris climate conference on November 30.

After the rift that appeared between the countries over Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and support for the Donbas rebels, the Kremlin said it saw the meeting of Putin and Kerry as the first signs of understanding the need to return cooperation between the two countries.

But Russia has also taken a strong position on what some are referring to US 'containment' of Russia, rejecting this as a deliberate distortion. "Such statements are made in the interests of the anti-Russian part of the international community," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said before the talks. After his meeting with Putin,Kerry stressed that "isolating Russia is not a policy in Washington".

Before the consultations, the US State Department said Kerry would "stress the need for full implementation of the Minsk agreement in Ukraine, which is the best solution not only to de-escalating tensions but also to respecting the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine".

During a visit to Kyiv earlier in December, US Vice President Joe Biden won a standing ovation in the Ukrainian parliament when he said the US would never recognise Russia's annexation of Crimea in March 2014.

However, in a sign that the sides may take a more pragmatic approach on some concerns in Ukraine, other Russian statements showed a softening of positions. Four days after Russia's envoy to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin said Washington "has been playing a destructive role throughout the entire Ukrainian crisis", Lavrov told Kerry on December 15 that on the contrary, the US could play a positive part.

"Taking into account Washington's influence on Kyiv, it could be a good thing for the work in the Normandy format," he added in comments reported by TASS, referring to the diplomatic group of senior representatives of Germany, Russia, Ukraine and France who have worked to resolve the situation in East Ukraine.