John Kerry, the US secretary of state, yesterday met with Russian President Vladimir Putin for high-pressure talks aimed at pushing Mr Putin to curb support for separatist rebels in Ukraine.
Mr Kerry arrived in the Black Sea resort of Sochi for meetings with Mr Putin and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, which were also expected to cover conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, as well as a nascent deal to curb Iran's nuclear programme.
Russian and US officials have said the trio are expected to skirt around the question of US sanctions on Russia.
It is the highest level meeting between US and Russian officials since Mr Kerry last visited Russia in 2013 and appears to be in part aimed simply at maintaining contact amid the greatest crisis in relations since the end of the Cold War.
"It's important for us to keep these lines of communication open. It's important to try to talk to the senior decision-maker," said a senior US State Department official who briefed reporters travelling with Mr Kerry.
"We have a lot of business that we could do together if there is interest," said the official.
Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin's spokesman, welcomed the meeting as a "positive" development.
"We have repeatedly stated on several levels, and the president has said, that Russia was never the initiator of the cooling of relations, and in fact we are always open to more open dialogue," he said.
He said American sanctions against Russia were not on yesterday's agenda.
The United States imposed sanctions on Russia in retaliation for the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and subsequent sponsorship of a separatist movement that has carved out a de-facto breakaway state in Ukraine's Donbass region. Washington says the Kremlin has tightened its command and control of the rebel insurgency in recent months, and has begun referring to "combined Russian-separatist forces" - a reflection of the belief that regular Russian soldiers are now more deeply involved in the war.
Moscow denies involvement in the conflict, and has lashed out at American support for the government of Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president, including in his war against the separatists.
While American military advisers are training Ukrainian forces, the White House has so far stopped short of supplying lethal weaponry to the Ukrainians.
Mr Peskov said Russia's priority is the implementation of the Minsk peace agreement, a road-map treaty hammered out by Mr Putin and Mr Poroshenko at Franco-German brokered talks in February.
Russian-backed forces initially ignored the peace deal in order to seize the strategic rail hub of Debaltsevo, inflicting a major defeat on the Ukrainians.
The intensity of fighting has since declined, but clashes have continued at several flash-points along the line of contact on an almost daily basis. OSCE observers in the area say they have frequently witnessed the presence or use of heavy weapons, despite promises by both sides to withdraw them.
Mr Kerry will make the case to Mr Putin that Russia should not proceed with its planned transfer of an advanced air defence system to Iran.
Mr Kerry's trip comes at a time when relations between Washington and Moscow have plummeted to post-Cold War lows amid the disagreements over Ukraine and Syria.
Russian rhetoric signalled there would be few breakthroughs on the many issues dividing the US and Russia. Nevertheless, both sides stressed the importance of trying to work through some of the rancour that buried US President Barack Obama's first-term effort to "reset" ties with Moscow.(© Daily Telegraph, London)