U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke over the phone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Feb. 17 about Syria and North Korea, finally working out a time to chat only five days after Kerry first reached out to his Russian counterpart.
"The Secretary and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov spoke for nearly half an hour this morning on the situation in Syria and ongoing work at the UNSC to respond to the DPRK's nuclear test. They also agreed to compare calendars to try to set a first bilateral meeting in the coming weeks," outgoing State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a Feb. 17 statement.
"On Syria, they discussed the importance of the U.S. and Russia using their respective influence on the parties in support of a viable political transition process. The Secretary underscored the urgency of ending the bloodshed, preventing further deterioration of the institutions of the state, and protecting the rights of all Syrians and helping them to resist extremism and further sectarian strife," Nuland said. "The Secretary and FM Lavrov also agreed on the need for close cooperation in New York on a swift response to the DPRK's latest provocative step."
Kerry first tried to connect with Lavrov on Feb. 12, after North Korea detonated a nuclear bomb for the third time. Lavrov had been traveling in Africa but returned to Russia Feb. 14. As of the afternoon of Feb. 15, the two leaders had still not been able to make the call happen.
"I think there was a sense on both sides that, after he returned to Moscow, that we needed to get this done, and I think he got back Thursday night Moscow time. And Friday was jammed for both guys, so they committed to do it on the weekend," Nuland said at Tuesday's press briefing.
The Russian Foreign Ministry had a different explanation for the back and forth over the phone call. On Feb. 16, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Alexander Lukashevich put out a statement saying that Lavrov had offered Kerry a window on Feb. 14 to chat, but the State Department never responded to that offer.
"In particular, we proposed to the U.S. side that the leaders of our foreign ministries talk on February 14 at a specified time interval. However, not having received confirmation from John Kerry, we felt that the issue was dropped," the Russians said.
Nuland did not respond to a request for comment on the Russian statement.
Regardless, the two leaders finally connected and now a meeting is in the works, perhaps during Kerry's upcoming two-week trip to Europe and the Middle East, which begins next week.
"They have agreed that they want to meet, and it's now up to staffs to find a place and a time for them to meet. If it works on the trip, that's great. If not, then we'll keep working for soon thereafter," Nuland said.
One of the topics that wasn't discussed during the Kerry-Lavrov phone call but will be high on their agenda when they meet is the new Russian ban on American adoptions of Russian orphans, which the State Department has repeatedly criticized. The ban is seen as retaliation for a new U.S. law that punishes Russian human rights violators by restricting their access to visas and their ability to do business in the United States.
That bill, the Sergei Magnitsky Accountability and Rule of Law Act of 2012, was named after the Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died in prison, allegedly after being tortured by Russian officials. The Russian government is trying Magnitsky this week, posthumously, for tax crimes.
"Instead of wasting time and resources retrying this poor man who has -- you know, who's already passed, the Russian government ought to put its energy into investigating how he died. That's been our view," Nuland said Tuesday.
A Russian reporter at the briefing pressed Nuland to outline the State Department's activity in the case of one Russian orphan, Max Shatto of Midland, Texas, who died under suspicious circumstances after being adopted by American parents and brought to the United States.
"This is obviously a terrible tragedy and it's our understanding that Texas authorities are still investigating the cause of death and that they themselves have not yet made any determination as to how the child died. We obviously take very seriously the welfare of children, particularly children who've been adopted from other countries," Nuland said.
"And we support appropriate access for concerned foreign officials to children who have dual or foreign citizenship. But I want to just underscore that nobody should jump to any conclusions about how this child died until Texas authorities have had the opportunity to investigate."
FARJANA K. GODHULY/AFP/Getty Images
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.