“It is no secret that the United States and Russia have had our differences over Ukraine,” Kerry told reporters in the French capital after meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
“We came together today in order to try to focus on those issues where we can find the capacity to be able to make a difference – to other countries, to the world in general, and certainly to the relationship between Russia and the United States,” he said.
“And so we talked about many other issues besides Ukraine. In fact, the bulk of the conversation today was on a host of other issues.”
Among those he listed were the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL), the Ebola crisis, Afghanistan, and the Iranian and North Korean nuclear issues. Kerry said the discussions had been “constructive.”
He emphasized that in the talks he and Lavrov had sought to manage differences where they existed, but also to recognize “that we have major responsibilities together and that our countries have an ability to be able to cooperate and work together.”
“We know that when the United States and Russia do succeed in working together, the world can become a safer place,” Kerry said, citing as an example the agreement year to get the Syrian regime to surrender its declared chemical weapons.
“We also know that it is far better to sit down and try to work through these issues through the diplomatic channel – to examine our differences, to understand our shared interests,” he said.
“And particularly today, on ISIL, on Iran, on Ebola, on issues of counterterrorism, on Afghanistan, we clearly not only had constructive discussions, but laid out a road ahead for us to be able to continue our work, including some of the discussions we need to have on the issues of proliferation and nonproliferation and nuclear weapons.”
Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region last March and its subsequent destabilization of eastern Ukraine led to the most serious rift in relations with the West since the end of the Cold War.
The U.S. and European Union imposed several rounds of sanctions, prompting Moscow to impose retaliatory measures and to sign deals with China in a bid to offset the effect of the Western sanctions.
Under an agreement negotiated in Minsk, Belarus last month between Ukraine, Russia and the Russian-backed separatists, a shaky and frequently-violated ceasefire is in place in eastern Ukraine, and U.S. and E.U. officials have begun talking about the possibility of easing sanctions if Russia implements the agreement.
Steps required include the withdrawal of all foreign military personnel and equipment from Ukraine, the release of hostages, and measures to ensure that the Ukraine side of the international border reverts to Ukrainian control.
Russia denies it has deployed troops in Ukraine, but President Vladimir Putin on Sunday ordered thousands of troops who have been posted near the border to return to their bases. The key cities of Donetsk and Luhansk remain in separatist hands,
Kerry said he and Lavrov discussed the Minsk agreement implementation and other matters relating to the dispute, including the need to conclude gas talks between Russia, Ukraine and the E.U., to assure Ukraine and the E.U. of a reliable supply of fuel as winter approaches.
He said they had differed over separatists’ plans to hold independence referendums: He said they would violate the Minsk agreement and that the results would not be recognized; Lavrov disputed that.
Russia annexed Crimea after a Moscow-backed referendum that was rejected by the West. The U.S. does not recognize the takeover, but the region is not covered in the Minsk agreement, and Kerry in his remarks in Paris made no reference to Crimea.
The government in Kiev has appealed to the West not to ease sanctions until it is able to regain control of all of its territory – including Crimea.
“We ask our partners not to lift sanctions until Ukraine takes control of its entire territory,” Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told the U.N. General Assembly last month. “Crimea was, is and will be a part of Ukraine.”