Putin to host John Kerry for high-stakes Sochi talks

Moscow (AFP) - President Vladimir Putin is expected to host US Secretary of State John Kerry for talks in Sochi on Tuesday, in the first visit to Russia by the US top diplomat since the start of the crisis in Ukraine.

Ties between Moscow and Washington collapsed after Russia seized Crimea and buttressed separatists in eastern Ukraine, but after a year of raging tensions signs are emerging that both Russia and the West may be ready for a detente.

Putin has refused to budge on Ukraine but has signalled his readiness to mend ties with Washington and Brussels as Russia chafes under the burden of biting Western sanctions.

The US State Department said on Monday that Kerry would meet with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov and Putin, who is spending the week at his summer residence in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi.

"This trip is part of our ongoing effort to maintain direct lines of communication with senior Russian officials and to ensure US views are clearly conveyed," said spokeswoman Marie Harf.

It will be Kerry's first visit to Russia in two years.

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to immediately confirm Putin's meeting with Kerry, but the foreign ministry confirmed the American's meeting with Lavrov.

"We expect that Secretary of State Kerry's visit to Russia will serve the normalisation of bilateral ties on which global stability depends to a large extent," the ministry said.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the two ministers would discuss the implementation of the shaky ceasefire deal that took effect in eastern Ukraine in February as well as conflicts in the Middle East.

They were not expected to discuss US sanctions on Russia, he said.

Kerry's high-stakes visit comes as Russia appears to have put the worst of the fallout from the Ukraine crisis behind it, with the rouble rebounding somewhat and Putin still immensely popular at home.

- 'No rush to leave' -

The Russian foreign ministry emphasised that, despite the Western sanctions, US companies were still keen to do business in Russia.

"Even under pressure from the White House, American business is in no rush to leave our market," the foreign ministry said.

"Boeing, Ford, John Deere, Alcoa, Coca Cola, PepsiCo, Mars, ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and other companies that have invested significant funds here would like to retain their position in Russia."

Putin himself used similar rhetoric when he called for an improvement in ties with Germany during Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit to Moscow on Sunday.

"Entrepreneurs are pragmatic people, that's why they are not leaving the Russian market," Putin said.

Moscow's annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in March 2014 -- after the ouster of a Kremlin-backed president in Kiev -- and support for a pro-Russian rebellion in Ukraine's east triggered the worst crisis in relations between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

Kiev and the West accuse the Kremlin of masterminding the insurgency in the east, which has killed more than 6,100 people in just over a year, and have slapped several rounds of sanctions on Russia.

-'Decades' to mend ties -

Interfax news agency cited an unnamed Russian source as saying repairing ties between Moscow and Washington would take "decades".

The source said Russia expected Washington to play a more high-profile role in resolving the Ukraine crisis.

"It's important that the United States begin to play a more constructive role in the Ukrainian settlement, that they force Kiev to enter into a direct dialogue with the Donetsk People's Republic and Lugansk People's Republic," the source said, referring to the rebel-controlled regions.

"Let's see what the Secretary of State will be able to offer in this context."

The source also said Moscow would urge Washington to refrain from supplying Kiev with lethal weapons, calling it "a principal issue."

Kerry's visit comes after US President Barack Obama skipped Russia's celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, in what was widely seen as a snub over Moscow's meddling in Ukraine.

Germany's Merkel, too, ducked out of the massive May 9 military parade on Red Square but visited Moscow on Sunday to pay tribute to the Soviet troops killed in the war.

In his May 9 address Putin made a point of thanking the Soviet Union's Western allies for their "contribution to victory" over the Nazis and shunned overtly aggressive rhetoric.

From Sochi, Kerry will travel to Antalya, Turkey for a NATO meeting.