DAVID GREENE, HOST:
That war has been closely watched in two capitals - Washington and Moscow. And Syria is expected to top the agenda, as Secretary of State John Kerry arrives today for what he calls a long-overdue visit to Russia. The U.S. has tried, for the past couple of years, to get Russia to use its influence with Bashar al-Assad to push for a political transition inside Syria. Now that the U.S. says it has evidence that chemical weapons might have been used in the civil war, Secretary Kerry is trying to nudge the Russians once again. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports that it won't be easy.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: U.S.-Russian relations are frosty these days. The U.S. is imposing targeted sanctions on Russian human rights violators, while Moscow is preventing American families from adopting Russian children. Kerry would be wise, though, not to dwell on these and other disputes, says Angela Stent. The director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, at Georgetown University, says the Obama administration needs to find a way to work with President Vladimir Putin on pressing global issues.
ANGELA STENT: We do know that Putin does have a pragmatic side to him, and that he is willing to engage and make deals. And so I think the trick is to sort of find a way of doing that; of engaging, if you like, Russia's self-interest and not, at least in the beginning, being sidetracked by the Russian narrative of, you know, what's wrong with the relationship.
KELEMEN: Russia has been at odds with the U.S. over the Arab uprisings, warning about the rise of Islamists - particularly now, in Syria. But Stent, who's writing a book about U.S.-Russia relations, says the two share concerns about Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. So that issue might provide an opening for Kerry.
STENT: For the Russians, it's partly their own credibility because they, too, have said that this is a red line for them. The problem for both the U.S. and the Russians is obviously, as President Obama has said, to figure out exactly what kind of weapons were used, and who used them.
KELEMEN: She says the odds are not great for Kerry, as he tries to reach common ground with Russia on Syria. Celeste Wallander, of American University, agrees this will be a hard sell, but she says Russia's position has been evolving.
CELESTE WALLANDER: What we've seen in the last two years is a substantial re-evaluation of the Assad regime in Russian policy - more skepticism, more concern. What we haven't seen is a change in Russian views on the issue of sovereignty, and the necessity for a U.N. Security Council resolution. And I think that that is the much harder question for the secretary's trip.
KELEMEN: Wallander, a former Pentagon official, says Kerry is likely to talk to Russia about what sort of role it can play in a post-Assad Syria.
WALLANDER: The Russian leadership is driven more by what they don't want than what they do want. I don't think they have a clear idea of what kind of outcome they would be willing to work towards. And so that's a hard conversation to have.
KELEMEN: It's a conversation former U.S. ambassador to Russia James Collins had in Moscow recently, when he and other former U.S. and Russian ambassadors met with Kremlin officials.
JAMES COLLINS: They are very concerned and indeed, worried that whatever we may hope, the people who are just as likely to prevail if the Assad system disappears will be the crazies and the radicals.
KELEMEN: Collins says like the U.S., Russia doesn't want to see Syria come apart. But Washington and Moscow haven't found a way to work together to promote peace talks among Syria's rival factions.
COLLINS: Basically, you've just got to get a negotiation started. Right now, all they're doing is killing each other. There is not the same energy being put into discussions about how do you bring about a negotiation, as there are on what can you do to the other guy in order to give him some advantage.
KELEMEN: And Syria shouldn't be the only issue on Kerry's plate, says Collins. The U.S. and Russia both seem to be trying to decide how to get over this frosty period. Collins says he sees a renewed focus on arms control and economic ties as President Obama prepares to meet Vladimir Putin this summer.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.