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Russian President Vladimir Putin and Secretary John Kerry will meet in Sochi on Tuesday — their first meeting since the crisis in the Ukraine and will discuss how the two nations can help quell conflict in Syria.
The meeting — Kerry's second trip to Russia since taking office — signals the two sides' willingness to, at least in this matter, put differences aside.
"What’s in it for Russia is that it is not in their interest for there to be a chaotic war-torn country where violent extremists could seek to establish a safe haven," White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Monday. "And anytime you see that kind of violence and chaos in a country like Syria, that obviously raises significant concerns from countries in the immediate vicinity of Syria, but also around the world."
While he has maintained frequent contact with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Kerry's meeting with Putin on Russian soil marks a decided change in how the two men have dealt with one another. The administration on Monday highlighted areas where the two nations' interests have aligned.
"Russia has participated in the...negotiations with Iran. They have been an important partner in putting in place the sanctions regime that has compelled Iran to the negotiating table, and we have been appreciative of the role that they have played in that effort," Earnest said.
Earnest also pointed to Russia efforts to dispose of Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile.
"That would not have been possible without the leadership of Russia, using their unique relationship with the Assad regime, to both convince the Assad regime to declare their chemical weapons stockpile, but then also to effectuate the destruction of that chemical stockpile," Earnest said. "And that did highlight the strong working relationship between the United States and Russia when it comes in pursuit of our mutual interests."
The administration also sought to downplay any significance in the timing of Kerry's meeting with Putin.
"Given we are going to Russia for this meeting, we thought it would make sense to meet with President Putin. Again, it's not just about Ukraine, it's about Syria, it's about Iran, it's about a number of issues," State Department spokesperson Marie Harf told reporters on Monday.
The relationship between the United States and Russia has been badly damaged over Ukraine.
Western nations accuse Russia of supporting separatists in Ukraine by providing weaponry and manpower — a charge Moscow denies. Russia, meanwhile, has bristled at Washington's pledge to provide Ukraine with military assistance in the form of hardware and training.
The trip is part of an ongoing U.S. effort "to maintain direct lines of communication with senior Russian officials and to ensure U.S. views are clearly conveyed," the State Department said.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin would not confirm that Putin would attend the meeting.
"It's certainly our understanding that it's confirmed," Harf said.
After his brief stop in Russia, Kerry will travel to Turkey for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers and return to Washington for a summit of Gulf nation leaders that President Barack Obama is hosting at Camp David.