Russia and the U.S. are at odds over the mechanics of a political transition aimed at halting the war in Syria, as well as the military approach to fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
On Ukraine, the two countries are split over the implementation of a February agreement meant to end hostilities between the Kiev government and Russian-backed separatists in the east.
Lavrov noted “outstanding issues” on steps ahead in the Syrian political transition that is supposed to bring representatives of Assad's government together with opposition groups for negotiations by early January. And, on Ukraine, Lavrov said the U.S. should use its influence with the government in Kiev to settle the conflict with Russian-backed separatists by respecting a shaky cease-fire and moving ahead with political reforms in the east of the country.
Kerry praised Moscow for having been “a significant contributor to the progress that we have been able to make” on Syria and said the U.S. and Russia both believe ISIL must be eliminated.
“Russia and the United States agree that this is a threat to everybody, to every country,” he said. “They are the worst of terrorists. They attack culture and history and all decency. It leaves no choice but for civilized nations to stand together, to fight and destroy them.”
However, ahead of his arrival, Russia's foreign ministry said Moscow would be looking for a “revision” in U.S. policy “dividing terrorists into ‘bad’ and ‘good’ ones.” It also complained that the U.S. was unwilling to engage in “full-fledged coordination” between the two powers' militaries while both are conducting airstrikes in Syria.
Russia says its airstrikes since late September have targeted ISIL positions, but Western governments claim mostly non-ISIL Syrian rebels, including some supported by the West, are being hit and that Moscow is primarily concerned with shoring up Assad.
Assad's future and his potential role in the political transition will be prime topics of Kerry's conversations with Putin and Lavrov. Russia has consistently said Assad's future is for the Syrian people to decide, while the U.S. and many of its allies insist that he go, although they have softened their stance somewhat to allow Assad to play a temporary but as-yet undefined role in the transition. Syrian opposition groups, however, demand that Assad leave at the start of the process.
Kerry's trip to Moscow was his second to Russia this year — he met with Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in May — but his first since frosty relations over Ukraine and Russia's annexation of Crimea were exacerbated by Moscow's intervention in Syria in late September. President Barack Obama has seen Putin briefly twice since then at summits in Turkey and France.
Kerry said “nothing would please us more than to resolve the differences on Ukraine” but there was little sign of a convergence. The U.S. and its European allies have imposed sanctions on Russia for its continued support for separatists in the east.
Kerry is asking for Russia's full implementation of a February cease-fire in exchange for sanctions relief. That truce called for the removal of heavy weaponry from front lines, a Russian troop withdrawal, the release of detainees and full access for international monitors. But the cease-fire has become increasingly strained.
Lavrov, however, put the responsibility for a resolution squarely on Washington.
“Of course, we would like to continue the dialogue … on how the United States can assist with the Ukrainian settlement,” he said. “Given the U.S. influence on Kiev, it would be a positive factor.”