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At Kerry-Putin meeting, US-Russia relations thaw – a little

Secretary of State John Kerry sought to ease diplomatic tensions with Russia in preparation for meetings between Putin and Obama later this year. But Syria remains a major sticking point.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (r.) speaks to US Secretary of State John Kerry during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Tuesday. Kerry is making his case to Putin for Russia to take a tougher stance on Syria at a time when Israel's weekend air strikes against the beleaguered Mideast nation have added an unpredictable factor to the talks.

Mikhail Klimentyev/Presidential Press Service/RIA-Novosti/AP

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Secretary of State John Kerry huddled in the Kremlin for several hours with President Vladimir Putin Tuesday, in what US officials described as an effort to "intensify" US-Russia dialogue and inject some fresh juice into a bilateral relationship that's been stumbling aimlessly, amid growing acrimony, for over a year.

More urgently, he told Mr. Putin that Russia and the United States must try harder to forge a common position on the fast-deteriorating situation in Syria, where conflicting charges of chemical weapons usage have alarmed the big powers, and a series of Israeli airstrikes in recent days have raised the specter of a much wider war.

"The United States believes that we share some very significant common interests with respect to Syria," Mr. Kerry told Putin.

Those mutual interests include promoting stability in the region, blocking extremists from gaining power, and working together to broker a peaceful political transition for the civil war-wracked country, he added. 

But according to a brief note posted on the Kremlin's official website, Putin indicated that he was only interested in a general discussion of "global problems" and would probably wait for his upcoming meetings with President Obama to make any serious decisions.

"I hope to soon meet with [Obama] in person. We will have opportunities to do so several times this year," Putin wrote. 

"I feel it is very important that our key ministries, including our foreign ministries, are working jointly to resolve the most difficult problems in the world today," he added.

Experts say the atmosphere is a bit more favorable for US-Russia detente today than a few months ago, when each side was passing laws that branded some of the other's officials as criminals . In part that may be because the tragedy of last month's Boston Marathon bombing has focused minds in both countries on the need for greatly improved security cooperation between their intelligence services.

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One of the main purposes of Kerry's two day visit, his first to Moscow since becoming secretary of State, is to prepare the ground for two high-profile upcoming meetings between Mr. Obama and Putin. The first is the G-8 summit, to be held this year in Northern Ireland in just over a month's time. Then, in September Obama will visit Russia for the first time since 2009, where he will hold meetings with Putin on the sidelines of the G-20 leader's summit in St. Petersburg.

"The Boston tragedy may turn out to be a catalyst which offers Obama and Putin an opportunity to do what they've clearly wanted to do for some time, which is to arrest the deterioration of the US-Russia relationship," says Sergei Markov, a political analyst and former adviser to Putin.

"With Russophobia running rampant in the US these days, and anti-Americanism so strong in Russia, it's not easy for the two presidents to overcome the public moods. But everyone agrees on the need for better security, so they can shake hands, make a deal about that, then move forward with other serious matters," he adds.

Mr. Markov says the current upswing bodes well for almost all aspects of the troubled relationship, except Syria.

"Russia will not be talked into accepting any international action that leads to removing Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria," he says.

Moscow has repeatedly made plain its view that US support for "pro-democracy" revolutions in the Arab world is naive, and only ends up empowering jihadists, who then accelerate the spread of instability around the region. In the case of Syria the Russians have dug in their heels, vetoing two UN Security Council resolution aimed at easing Mr. Assad from power, and blaming the US and its allies for willfully fanning the flames of extremism by backing the rebels.

The Russians insist it's the US that needs to change its tune, abandon hopes for regime change and throw support behind a political process – which Moscow believes the US agreed to at a high level meeting in Geneva last summer – involving negotiations between the Assad regime and moderate rebel factions.

"Of course we'll talk and talk about Syria, but the chances of compromise there are not very great," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.

Other areas of tension in US-Russian relations look more promising, say experts.

They include Afghanistan, where the Russians are increasingly alarmed about what might happen after NATO draws down its forces next year.

Even the thorny issue of a NATO-run anti-missile shield in Europe, which has stymied negotiators for years, could see significant progress when Putin and Obama talk face-to-face in coming months, analysts say.

"We will likely see a renewal of constructive dialogue about missile defense. There are a lot of small technical compromises that could be made quickly, and would build confidence," says Markov.

"A full agreement is probably some time off, but the re-start of serious negotiations could happen very soon."


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