US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Russia's President Vladimir Putin at the presidential residence Bocharov Ruchey in Sochi on May 12, 2015
Washington (AFP) - US Secretary of State John Kerry took a gamble when he flew to Russia last week for the first time in two years to meet President Vladimir Putin.
But his bet may be beginning to pay off, as two top American diplomats were welcomed in Moscow on Monday for top-level talks for the first time in months on two crises bedeviling global affairs -- Ukraine and Syria.
Kerry's trip ran counter to international efforts to isolate the Russian president for his actions in Ukraine.
Critics were swift to line up to lambast the top US diplomat, accusing him of merely bolstering Putin's image for little in return.
Writing for CNN, Leon Aron, director of Russian Studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, bitingly dismissed Kerry's Sochi press conference alongside his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov as "a gooey stream of unctuous cliches, non sequiturs, tautologies and euphemisms that underscored Putin's diplomatic victory."
But even though there was no concrete breakthrough after eight hours of talks at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, there are signs of a different tone in a relationship long marred by animosity, but vital in dealing with a host of issues from the Middle East to nuclear non-proliferation.
Assistant Secretary for Europe Victoria Nuland met with senior Russian officials to discuss ways of "deepening our engagement" in implementing a shaky Ukraine ceasefire, a senior State Department official said.
Meanwhile, special US envoy for Syria Daniel Rubinstein was also in the Russian capital to discuss with the foreign ministry "how to create the conditions for a genuine, sustainable political transition in Syria," the State Department said.
- Digging in -
A fluent Russian speaker, Nuland has not traveled to Moscow since late 2013 just before Putin incurred global wrath by moving to annex the southern Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and backing separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.
She told reporters in Moscow that "we particularly dug in on how the United States might be able to support the process" of implementing the Ukraine ceasefire, including discussing "concrete steps."
Washington, along with its European allies, has slapped sanctions on Moscow, punishing it for its role in Europe's worst post-Cold War crisis in hopes of reversing Putin's policies.
But in the intervening months as fighting in Ukraine has dragged on, US-Russian ties have plunged and US efforts to engage Moscow have stalemated -- except on the issue of the Iran nuclear talks where Russian officials are a key player.
Kerry has for some time been eager to talk to Putin, amid US fears that the Russian leader is increasingly relying on only a tiny circle of loyal advisors.
The aim of the Sochi trip was to keep the lines of communication open, stressed Kerry, saying there was "no substitute" for direct talks.
"This was an important visit at an important time, and we didn't come here with an expectation that we were going to define a specific path forward with respect to one crisis or another, or have a major breakthrough," he said.
Lavrov said the trip "had allowed us to better understand each other."
Some analysts highlighted that in the current climate, US President Barack Obama cannot travel to Russia and risk humiliation by the belligerent Putin.
"Having a face-to-face meeting with Putin is very important, but it would be very risky for President Obama to do that," Brookings Institution expert Fiona Hill told AFP.
But she cautioned: "It's too soon to talk about the reset of the reset."
US officials said privately they had been surprised by the new tenor of the conversation with Putin in Sochi, who appeared ready for in-depth discussions, eschewing his usual lengthy anti-West diatribes.
At the end of their talks hosted by the Russian leader in his summer residence, the two men even shared some small talk, cracking a bottle of local wine.
- Approach with caution -
Hill cautioned that the United States would have to "be very, very careful" going forward, warning "Russian intentions are extremely difficult to figure out."
Both countries needed the other, she stressed.
"Russia does not want to be left out in this strategic interplay in the Middle East," Hill explained.
Joerg Forbrig, expert on Eastern Europe with the German Marshall Fund, said Kerry's visit was "very symbolic, with very little substance."
"Nothing really happened and it was a gesture by the Americans for the Russians," he told AFP.
"The Americans acknowledge that there are issues that need to be resolved with Russia, but I don't believe that Russia is sincere because their main objective is to confront the West."