(WASHINGTON) — Secretary of State John Kerry was on his way to Moscow on Monday amid new unrest in Syria and at a time when the United States is investigating the biggest terror attack on American soil since 9/11 — an attack that has ties to Russia.
Kerry will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Tuesday to discuss pressing geopolitical issues that, beyond Syria and global terrorism, include Iran, North Korea and stability in the Middle East.
However, the larger goal on Kerry’s first trip to the Kremlin as secretary of state, according to senior State Department officials, is to highlight areas of common ground between the countries and ways they can work together.
Though the relationship between Russia and the United States has often been described as complex, if not outright difficult, there are areas of cooperation, said one official, who added that Russians are enthusiastic about the visit.
“They have been anticipating this visit for a long time,” the official told reporters. “They’ve been extremely accommodating. This is a trip that they want to go well.”
While Kerry will be discussing a wide range of issues, one topic on the agenda will be an increase in counter-terrorism cooperation between the countries, particularly after the Boston Marathon bombing, where the suspects had ties to Russia.
Even though the FBI is the lead agency on the investigation, the State Department has found that the Russian government has been “very cooperative” in facilitating the needs of the FBI in terms of the investigation, a senior State Department official told reporters.
The official acknowledged that, historically, there have been trust issues between the Russian and American governments, but said counter-terrorism remains an issue the two countries have common ground on.
“If we’re having a disagreement in one area, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we can’t cooperate on a different area,” said the official. “We’ve been very clear about that — that we seek to cooperate when we can and not allow disagreements in other issues to stop that cooperation.”
The situation in Syria remains an area that the United States and Russia have well-documented differences on, with the Obama administration staunchly standing by its position that President Assad must step down in any transition, and the Russians maintaining that outside influence on a Syrian resolution needs to be limited.
Finding common interests on issues is particularly important given the Israeli strikes against Syria this past weekend and the recent reports of massacres in the country, a second senior State Department official said.
“Events have moved forward on the ground, and so this is a time to talk to the Russians, to understand that from our side we remain committed,” said the official. “If they are as well, then we need to think about how to work operationally to make that happen.”
“I don’t know if we will get an agreement or not,” the official said, “but we certainly think it is worth testing and trying to find some ways forward.”
On Wednesday, Kerry will travel to Rome, where he will meet with senior Italian government officials to discuss global issues, including Afghanistan, Syria, and the Middle East.
He’ll also meet with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, and with Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to discuss the ongoing Mideast peace process.
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