WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet on the sidelines of the United Nations next week -- their first face-to-face meeting in nearly a year -- amid festering relations between the two countries over Ukraine, Syria, and other issues.
The planned meeting, confirmed by both the Kremlin and the White House on September 24, comes as Russia continues to send advanced weaponry and hundreds of personnel to Syria in what appears to be its largest military deployment outside the former Soviet Union since the Soviet collapse.
The buildup has alarmed Washington and its allies in Europe and the Middle East, who fear that by moving to elbow its way into the fight against Islamic State (IS) militants, Moscow is seeking to further prop up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a longtime Kremlin ally.
The Kremlin has reportedly been seeking a meeting between Obama and Putin for weeks now, but the U.S. administration has been reluctant.
Washington has also accused Moscow of failing to adhere to the Minsk agreements that ended most large-scale fighting between Kyiv’s forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. The warring sides have continued to trade mortar and gunfire despite the cease-fire, though the violence has declined sharply in recent weeks.
A senior U.S. administration official told RFE/RL on September 24 that Putin had requested the meeting.
“Given the situations in Ukraine and Syria, despite our profound differences with Moscow, the president believes that it would be irresponsible not to test whether we can make progress through high-level engagement with the Russians,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with White House protocol, said in an e-mailed comment.
“In particular, our European partners have underscored the importance of a unified message about the necessity of fully implementing the Minsk agreements,” the official added. “President Obama will take advantage of this meeting to discuss Ukraine, and he will be focused on ensuring Moscow lives up to the Minsk commitments. This will be the core message of this bilateral engagement.”
While the U.S. administration has sought to isolate the Kremlin for its actions in Ukraine, Putin and Obama have had sporadic contact.
The two leaders spoke by telephone in June and in February, at Putin’s request. They last met face-to-face in November, when they spoke informally during a meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders in China.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted by news agencies as saying the meeting would take place on September 28, following Putin’s speech to the UN General Assembly.
Asked by a TASS reporter what the two leaders would discuss, Peskov was quoted as saying with a smile: “I’ll give you three guesses.”