President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet next week in New York for the first time in nearly a year to discuss the war in Syria, where the Kremlin is building up a military force, and consolidating a peace deal in Ukraine, the White House announced on Friday.
The White House sought to tamp down expectations that the talks – the Kremlin said they’d take place on Monday – would bring any major breakthroughs toward reversing the worst downturn in relations between Washington and Moscow since the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991.
“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,” said an unidentified senior administration official in a statement emailed by the White House.
Moreover, while Putin, who requested the meeting, was expected to focus on the Syrian civil war and his deployment of aircraft, armor and personnel at an airport near the Mediterranean coast, Obama intends to concentrate on what the administration says is unrelenting Russian military backing for pro-Moscow separatists in two enclaves of eastern Ukraine.
“President Obama will once again use this occasion to reinforce to President Putin the importance of Russia keeping the commitments that they’ve made in the context of the Minsk agreements,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest, referring to accords reached between Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France on ending the separatist uprising.
“This is a message that President Putin has heard from some of our European allies who’ve raised concerns with the way that combined Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine continue to destabilize that country, and they continue to receive important military support from the Russian government,” Earnest added. “That is a clear violation of the territorial integrity of that sovereign nation.”
While Moscow has been backing the separatists, Washington the has been supplying financial aid, military training and non-lethal military assistance to the Ukrainian government, but has rejected calls that it provide offensive weaponry. The United States and the European Union also have imposed harsh economic sanctions on Russian state-run banks and firms and members of Putin’s inner circle in retaliation for Moscow’s support for the separatists and its annexation of the Crimea peninsula.
The crisis in the former Soviet republic has been has been overshadowed in the past two weeks by Russia’s buildup of aircraft, advanced tanks and armored vehicles and several hundred marines at the airport near the Syrian port city of Latakia.
The U.S. emphasis on Ukraine appeared aimed at telegraphing Washington’s disinterest in a proposal that Putin is expected to detail in a speech on Monday to the United Nations for the creation of a coalition to fight the Islamic State that would include the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Assad’s other key foreign backer, Iran, and the United States and its European and Arab allies.
The United States sees no need for such a plan, but says it is open to Russia joining a U.S.-led coalition of more than 60 nations in conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and training and equipping Iraqi security forces.
Washington is deeply concerned over the Russian military deployment near the Syrian port city of Latakia. The Obama administration believes the buildup is designed to bolster Assad, who recently has suffered serious setbacks in the four-year-old civil war.
“President Obama will make clear once again that Russia doubling down on their support for the Assad regime is a losing bet,” Earnest said. “The likely consequence of them doing so is only to deepen and expand the ongoing crisis in that country. That doesn’t serve the interests of either the Russian people or the American people.”
Obama repeatedly has called for Assad to leave power, contending that his use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons against civilians is helping Islamist extremists recruit new fighters and is prolonging the war that has killed an estimated 250,000 people and driven 11 million from their homes.
U.S. fears over inadvertent entanglements or accidents between Russian and U.S.-led coalition aircraft prompted a telephone discussion last week between Defense Secretary Ash Carter and his Russian counterpart on creating a “deconfliction mechanism,” a euphemism for a special communications channel that each side can use to inform the other of its operations.
On Thusday, Carter said that he and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had discussed two primary goals: defeating the Islamic State and securing a political transition that would see Assad leave power. “Those two tracks have to move in parallel and simultaneously,” he said.
Carter said that he and Shoigu would have further talks, in addition to Obama’s planned meeting with Putin next week in New York. “It’s not a matter of trust,” Carter said. “It’s a matter of seeing what the Russians do.”
Obama and Putin last met in November 2014 at an Asia-Pacific economic summit in Beijing, but held no substantive talks. They have had several telephone conversations since then, the last in June.
U.S.-Russian relations have been in a Cold War-like freeze since Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 and provided weapons and funds to pro-Russia separatists who seized large swaths of eastern Ukraine and allegedly shot down a Malaysian Airlines jet in July 2014 using a Russia-supplied missile, killing all 298 people aboard.
There is considerable evidence that Putin also sent Russian troops, tanks and artillery into eastern Ukraine to bolster the rebels, a charge that Moscow denies.
James Rosen contributed to this report from Washington.