U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged all sides in the Ukrainian conflict on Tuesday to prevent breaches of a cease-fire agreed to earlier this year in Minsk.
Talking at a joint briefing with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, the top U.S. diplomat said the talks, which involved Russian President Vladmir Putin, "come in the midst of a challening time."
"I'm grateful to President Putin for the significant amount of time he dedicated to today's discussions," he said. "There is no substitute for direct talks with key decisions makers," when addressing such complex issues.
Kerry had earlier described "frank" talks about Ukraine, Syria and Iran with the Russian leader, emphasizing the importance of keeping in contact. According to both Kerry and Lavrov, the discussions addressed a range of topics, from U.S.-Iranian nuclear negotiations to Yemen, Syria, Libya and Ukraine.
At the joint briefing, which Putin did not attend, Lavrov said it was "absolutely necessary" to avoid steps that could further harm relations between Russia and the United States, adding that Tuesday's meeting had helped Moscow and Washington better understand each other. Lavrov agreed with Kerry's concerns that the Ukraine cease-fire, as outlined in the Minsk peace plan has been repeatedly violated.
Kremlin adviser Yuri Ushakov told reporters earlier Tuesday that the talks yielded no major breakthroughs, adding only that had Putin called for normalized relations between the two countries.
First high-level visit in years
Tuesday's talks represent Kerry's first visit to Russia since relations soured over sharp disagreements on Ukraine and Syria.
Before sitting down with Putin, Kerry met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for more than four hours in what was then the highest-level U.S. visit to Russia since the Ukraine crisis began.
The U.S. State Department said Kerry and Putin would discuss "a full range of bilateral and regional issues" including Yemen and Libya, as part of an ongoing effort to ensure that U.S. views are clearly conveyed.
Kerry's visit was largely viewed as an a test of Putin’s willingness to make pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine comply with a shaky cease-fire agreement, and gauge Russia’s support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces have suffered recent defeats in a more than four-year civil war. The United States wants a political transition to end his family's 45-year-old rule.
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, and the trip appeared designed as much to maintain contact as anything else.
In a sign of the considerable strains, the Kremlin did not confirm Kerry's meeting with Putin until just an hour before he arrived in Sochi, a full day after U.S. officials had announced it. Russia's Foreign Ministry had also previewed the talks by blaming Washington for the breakdown in relations.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov, who confirmed Putin's participation in the Sochi talks, told Russia's Interfax news agency that international sanctions on Russia, linked to its involvement with separatists in eastern Ukraine, would not be on Russia's agenda.
The Sochi meetings coincided with the release of a report based on information compiled by slain Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov that said at least 220 Russian soldiers have died in fighting in southeastern Ukraine over the past year, despite Russia’s denials of involvement. Entitled "Putin's War," the 64-page document draws on media accounts, testimonies from relatives and other representatives of dead soldiers and confidential sources, maintaining that the war has cost Russia hundreds of millions of dollars.
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.
After Sochi, Kerry heads to Antalya, Turkey, where he will attend a meeting of NATO foreign ministers Wednesday. He returns to Washington to attend meetings Thursday with U.S. President Barack Obama and Persian Gulf Arab state leaders, who are concerned about the possibility of a nuclear deal with Iran.
On Monday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg again accused Moscow of violating the cease-fire in the Ukrainian conflict by continuing to supply pro-Russian separatists with military aid.
Stoltenberg and NATO military chief, U.S. General Philip Breedlove, have repeatedly accused the Kremlin of lending support to pro-Russian rebels battling Ukraine forces in the country's east.
Speaking Monday in Brussels, Stoltenberg described the Russian buildup since a cease-fire in February as "a steady flow of heavy equipment, tanks, artillery, ammunition, air defense systems and a lot of training."
Last month, in a similar critique, he said the ongoing buildup — including at that time more than 1,000 pieces of heavy equipment — "gives reason for great concern" and would allow rebels to launch new military offensives in the east with little advanced warning.
Moscow has repeatedly denied the NATO claims. In late April, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu countered by accusing the U.S. military of providing training in urban fighting to Ukrainian national guardsmen near the border.
More than 6,100 people have been killed since April 2014 in the Ukraine crisis.