U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Russia Tuesday to news that the Kremlin had confirmed a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi.
The confirmation followed hours of limbo Monday during which the Kremlin refused to say whether Kerry and Putin would meet, despite U.S. officials' insistence that the talks would take place. A senior State Department official told the Associated Press tersely, "We usually don't go to Sochi to see Foreign Minister Lavrov."
Putin's spokesman welcomed Kerry's decision to travel to Russia. "We have repeatedly stated at various levels and the president has said that Russia never initiated the freeze in relations and we are always open for displays of political will for a broader dialogue," Dmitry Peskov told journalists in Sochi.
Kerry was to lay a wreath at a World War II memorial before meeting Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the brief visit, his first to Russia since May 2013 and the advent of the Ukraine crisis.
"This trip is part of our ongoing effort to maintain direct lines of communication with senior Russian officials and to ensure U.S. views are clearly conveyed," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement.
Kerry plans to test Putin's willingness to push pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine to comply with an increasingly fragile ceasefire agreement, according to U.S. officials traveling with him.
Kerry will also seek to gauge the status of Russia's support for embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces have been losing ground to rebels, and press Moscow to support a political transition that could end that war, the officials said.
In addition, Kerry will make the case to Putin that Russia should not proceed with its planned transfer of an advanced air defense system to Iran.
The Russian Foreign Ministry set a hostile tone for the visit by issuing a statement blaming Washington for the breakdown in relations between the two countries.
"The Obama administration chose the path of scaling back bilateral relations, proclaimed a course of isolating Russia on the international arena and demanded that those states that traditionally follow the lead of Washington support its confrontational steps," said the statement, which also claimed that Ukraine's crisis "was largely provoked by the United States itself."
White House spokesman Josh Earnest acknowledged the "complicated" relationship between the former foes, but insisted they could cooperate on "interests that benefit the citizens of both our countries."
Much hinges on violence decreasing in Ukraine, however.
The Western-backed government in Kiev continues to be embroiled in a sporadic conflict between government and separatist rebel forces in its eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk despite a cease-fire agreement sealed in mid-February. Russia was party to that deal; although the U.S. was not, one State Department official said it is important for Putin "to hear directly from the United States that we are firmly committed to (its) implementation."
Western nations say Russia supports the separatists with arms and manpower, and even directs some battlefield operations -- all claims Moscow denies. In return, the Russians bristle at Washington's provisions to Ukraine of military assistance in the form of hardware and training.
Diplomats in Moscow and Washington are at odds over a range of other issues.
Russia last month announced it would lift a five-year ban on delivery of an air defense missile system to Iran, drawing a hasty rebuke from the United States.
The White House said the missile system would give the Islamic republic's military a strong deterrent against any air attack. The Kremlin argues that the S-300 is a purely defensive system that will not jeopardize the security of Israel or any other countries in the Middle East.
On Syria, Russia has defied a chorus of international condemnation to remain allied with Assad.
Following his stop in Sochi, Kerry will travel to Antalya, Turkey, where he will attend a meeting of NATO foreign ministers Wednesday. Kerry will then return to Washington to attend meetings Thursday with Obama and top officials of the Persian Gulf Arab states, who are concerned about the possibility of a nuclear deal with Iran.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.