Kerry holds 'frank' talks with Putin in bid to improve ties

Jo Biddle in Sochi with Anna Smolchenko in Moscow

Sochi (Russia) (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin and US Secretary of State John Kerry held four hours of rare face-to-face talks on Tuesday as the two nations sought ways to cooperate after a sharp deterioration in relations.

The highest level US visit to Russia since the Ukraine crisis erupted in late 2013 did not result in any major agreements, but Kerry's trip in itself and a marked change in tone were seen as signs of the countries' willingness to improve ties.

"Today's meetings allowed us to better understand each other," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters after talks on Ukraine, Syria and Iran, among other issues, in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi.

A post on Kerry's Twitter account called the meeting with Putin "frank" and "productive".

"I express President Obama's gratitude for Russia's willingness to engage in this discussion at a time when the exchange of views could not be more important," Kerry said after his meeting with Putin and another four hours of talks with Lavrov.

"There is no substitute for talking directly to key decision-makers, particularly during a period that is as complex and fast-moving as this is."

The two top diplomats said Moscow and Washington should continue dialogue to try to resolve their differences.

Ties between Moscow and Washington were shredded when Russia seized the southern Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in early 2014 and allegedly buttressed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Kerry visited Sochi after Obama snubbed Russia's huge military parade to commemorate Soviet victory over Nazi Germany last week, in what was seen as punishment over Russia's meddling in Ukraine.

Earlier in the day, Kerry and Lavrov laid wreaths at a World War II memorial to pay tribute to the Soviet dead.

On the balmy shores of the Black Sea, the top US diplomat's Russian hosts also treated Kerry to locally made sparkling wine, according to Putin's aides, while Lavrov gave his counterpart two baskets of potatoes and tomatoes.

Potatoes as presents have become a running joke between Kerry and Lavrov, with the US diplomat presenting his Russian counterpart with two large Idaho potatoes when the two met for talks on Syria in Paris in January 2014.


-'Urgent need for cooperation'-


Kerry reiterated that biting US and EU sanctions on Russia could be rolled back "if and when" the terms of a shaky Ukraine ceasefire were fully met.

He warned all sides, including Ukraine's pro-Western government, that any further recourse to force would "be extremely destructive".

Both Kerry and Lavrov said that all the terms of the truce had to be implemented.

While there were "certain contradictions and divergences as regards to the origins" of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, "we definitely shared the view that it is only possible to resolve" the crisis by implementing the truce, Lavrov said.

The Ukraine crisis is also likely to top the agenda at NATO foreign ministers' talks on Wednesday in Antalya, Turkey, Kerry's next destination after leaving Sochi late Tuesday.

Beyond Ukraine, Kerry said there was an "urgent need" for the United States and Russia to cooperate on global challenges.

Pointing to the success of an earlier deal on eliminating Syria's chemical weapons, Kerry said: "There is an urgent need, we agreed, for that same kind of cooperation ... the same kind of effort is now necessary on some other challenges that we face together."

"We have an understanding of the need to avoid steps which can inflict long-term damage on bilateral ties in various fields," Lavrov said.

"Especially if we take into account the fact that the solution of many pressing modern problems depends on our well-coordinated joint efforts on the international arena."


-'First signs of understanding'-


On Syria, Kerry said that the two countries had agreed to share more information about continuing chlorine gas attacks by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which have raised alarm in Washington.

US officials said Kerry wanted to gauge whether Moscow's support for Assad may be on the wane as the rebels appear to be gaining the upper hand in the four-year civil war.

They also discussed Yemen and Libya, and Kerry briefed Putin on the negotiations on curtailing Iran's nuclear programme, saying it was important to maintain their unity on the issue.

He was accompanied by chief US negotiator Wendy Sherman, who travels to Vienna on Wednesday for a new round of Iran talks.

Putin's top foreign policy adviser Yury Ushakov told Russian reporters that the Sochi meetings were "the manifestation of the first signs of understanding that the two great countries should return to normal cooperation."

At the same time Moscow stressed it would not renounce its national interests, with the Russian foreign ministry saying it was ready to cooperate with Washington on an "equal basis, without attempts to dictate and coerce."