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Kerry's Russia Trip To Focus On Syria, Counterterrorism

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) last met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a NATO-Russia foreign ministers meeting in April in Brussels.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) last met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a NATO-Russia foreign ministers meeting in April in Brussels.
WASHINGTON -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has arrived in Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other officials that are expected to focus on Syria and counterterrorism cooperation.

The nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea, the transition in Afghanistan, bilateral trade, and thorny human rights issues are also expected to be discussed during the two-day trip.

The visit is Kerry's first to Russia since becoming the top U.S. diplomat in February. It comes as the Obama administration looks to rekindle the "reset" in relations that has taken a beating since Putin's reelection last year.

In announcing the trip to reporters in late April, Kerry called it "overdue."

In meetings with Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on May 7, Kerry is expected to renew the U.S. push for Moscow to alter its stance in support of longtime ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Backed by U.S. intelligence pointing to the use of chemical weapons in the country, Kerry is expected to argue that the window for a diplomatic solution to the crisis is quickly closing.

Syria Sticking Point

For more than a year, U.S. efforts to sway Russia on Syria have largely fallen on deaf ears, with the Kremlin denouncing any steps it sees as precursors for foreign intervention.

Russia and China have blocked bids for toughened UN action against Damascus. Moscow has continued to funnel weapons to the regime, even as the death toll has soared past 70,000.

Mark Katz, an expert on Russia's foreign policy in the Middle East at George Mason University, says the chances of a breakthrough during Kerry's visit are minimal.

"I expect that the most [Kerry] can achieve is that the Russians will perhaps not be so strident about the Americans and their allies taking actions. Probably the best [the United States] can hope for is that [Russia] will do nothing actively to help Assad against any American and Western action," Katz said.

"Even if [the Russians] don't expect Assad to survive, they don't want to be seen as helping undermine someone who has been an ally. If there's going to be a mess in Syria, that has to be blamed squarely on the West."

After Boston

Kerry's visit also comes in the wake of last month's terror attack in Boston. The revelation that two ethnic Chechen immigrants are the suspected perpetrators has led to a renewed focus on counterterrorism cooperation.

Analysts say mistrust and entrenched bureaucracies on both sides have limited intelligence-sharing in the past and will likely continue to do so.

Nevertheless, a senior U.S. State Department official told reporters ahead of Kerry's visit that the Boston attack has opened "a new era in U.S.-Russian [counterterrorism] cooperation."

North Korean belligerence and the ongoing nuclear standoff with Iran will also be discussed.

Washington has tried to assure Moscow that its missile defense plans are aimed at countering those threats and not at subduing Russia.

Last month, Obama dispatched his top national security adviser, Thomas Donilon, to the Russian capital to deliver a letter to Putin that the Kremlin said contained "concrete measures" on missile defense, trade, and other issues.

Lavrov has told reporters Russia's response will depend, in part, on the outcome of Kerry's visit to Russia.

Civil Society Concerns

Kerry may also try to downplay the blow to relations caused by last month's publication of the "Magnitsky list." The U.S. move sanctioned Russian officials over alleged human rights abuses and prompted a retaliatory blacklist from Moscow. Russia has also banned U.S. adoptions in response.

On May 8, Kerry will meet members of Russia's beleaguered civil society at the home of U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul.

Washington has been critical of the deepening crackdown on NGOs under Putin, including legislation mandating that they register as "foreign agents" if they receive funding from the United States or other countries.

Kerry's visit will also help set the stage for upcoming talks between Obama and Putin on the sidelines of the G8 summit in June and during a bilateral summit in St. Petersburg in September.

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