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Ukraine crisis: John Kerry to meet Putin in Russia

55US Secretary of State John Kerry is to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin during his first visit to Russia since the Ukraine crisis began in early 2014.
Mr Putin’s spokesman called the visit a “positive step” and said the Russian leader was prepared for “extensive” discussions at the meeting in Sochi.
Mr Kerry was first meeting his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
The West accuses Russia of arming rebels in eastern Ukraine and sending troops there – charges Moscow denies.
More than 6,000 people have been killed since fighting began in April 2014 between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed rebels in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
The conflict followed Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in southern Ukraine.
‘Broader dialogue’
Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov laid wreaths at a World War Two memorial earlier on Tuesday.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Mr Kerry’s trip was “part of our ongoing effort to maintain direct lines of communication with senior Russian officials and to ensure US views are clearly conveyed”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov praised Mr Kerry’s decision to travel to Russia, adding: “We are always open to showing a political will for a broader dialogue.
“Through dialogue, it is possible to look for paths to a certain normalisation, to a closer co-ordination in decisions.”
He said Russia was prepared to discuss international “hot spots” as well as bilateral relations, and that the issue of Western sanctions against Russia would not be raised by the Russian side.
Analysis: Bridget Kendall, BBC News, Sochi
For President Obama to send his top envoy all the way to Sochi is significant. That the Kremlin has now called the visit positive and said President Putin is ready to discuss a wide range of issues with him is even more important.
John Kerry has not visited Russia since relations plunged into a deep freeze over Ukraine. It now looks as though both sides are hoping that Tuesday’s talks are a chance to explore where they have common ground.
Mr Putin’s spokesman said the Russian leader was prepared to discuss conflict zones – in other words, the wars in Ukraine and Syria – but said it was not up to Russia to raise the issue of Western sanctions.
There’s an air of expectation on both sides about this meeting, but also realism. One Russian deputy foreign minister described the agenda as complicated and not improving – which suggests a long, hard slog.
The visit came on the same day that opposition activists published a report, originally compiled by murdered Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov, alleging that 220 Russian soldiers had died in two key battles in eastern Ukraine.
The Ukrainian government, Western leaders and Nato say there is clear evidence that Russia is helping the rebels with heavy weapons and soldiers – an accusation echoed by independent experts. Moscow insists that any Russians serving with the rebels are volunteers.
Earlier, Russia’s foreign ministry issued a statement blaming the US for provoking the Ukraine crisis and attempting to “isolate Russia” while demanding its allies follow suit.
Mr Kerry last held talks with Mr Putin in Moscow in May 2013, a meeting for which the Russian leader was three hours late.
This visit comes two days after German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the annexation of Crimea had caused “a serious setback in our relations” during a joint press conference with Mr Putin in Moscow.
The German leader has already said that the EU plans to extend sanctions against Russia, unless there is progress on implementing the Minsk peace deal for Ukraine in full.
The lull in the conflict in eastern Ukraine since February’s ceasefire has been punctuated by frequent violations, and on Tuesday Ukraine said three of its soldiers had been killed in the past 24 hours.
Both Ukraine and Nato have warned of a risk of a return to widespread violence.