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Kerry heading to Russia with full agenda for talks

US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks  in Washington on April 30, 2013
US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a joint press conference at the State Department in Washington on April 30, 2013. He set off for Russia on his first visit since taking up the post, traveling with a diplomatic bag bulging with global problem

US Secretary of State John Kerry set off for Russia on his first visit since taking up the post on Monday, traveling with a diplomatic bag bulging with global problems, including the war in Syria.

In a rare break with protocol he was to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, for what a senior State Department official called "a fantastic opportunity" for talks on the entire bilateral relationship.

"It is quite important that Secretary Kerry will have a substantial, full meeting with President Putin," the official said. A Secretary of State would normally meet his counterpart, Russia's foreign minister.

From Syria to the Boston bombings, missile defense, Iran and North Korea and rows over a ban on American adoptions of Russian children and the shuttering of US aid agencies, the plate will be full for the meetings.

Syria is likely to top the agenda with the 26-month war threatening to spill across the region.

Washington has long urged Moscow -- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's most powerful ally -- to use its sway to halt the bloodshed, accusing Russian leaders of continuing to arm the Syrian regime.

Moscow has grown increasingly alarmed by the war, and at the weekend said it was "especially" concerned by Israeli strikes on Syrian targets, warning that the violence threatens neighboring Lebanon.

There were also troubling reports that Syrian rebels had used the nerve agent sarin gas, which would mark a dangerous escalation in the fighting.

"We have no information to suggest that they have either the capability or the intent to deploy or use such weapons," a second State Department official said, adding Washington was trying to gather as many facts as possible.

While both sides have already backed a political solution to the war in Syria, "events have moved forward on the ground," he said.

Russia's PM Vladimir Putin looks on during a meeting in his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, on  March 12, 2012
Russia's PM Vladimir Putin looks on during a meeting in his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, on March 12, 2012.

"So this is a time to talk to the Russians to understand that from our side we remain committed, and if they are as well then we need to think about how to work operationally to make that happen," he said.

"I don't know if we will get an agreement or not, but we certainly think it is worth testing and trying to find some ways forward."

Stepped up cooperation on counter-terrorism would also be high on the agenda for the talks, following the last month's bombings of the Boston marathon blamed on two brothers of Chechen descent.

Moscow and Washington were embarking on a "new era on that front in the wake of the tragedy," the first official said, adding the two sides were looking for ways cooperate and boost their dialogue.

"Our counterparts here have made clear they are ready to engage on Syria, but they have many issues that they want to talk about," he added.

While Kerry knows many Russian leaders from his days as a senator, this is his first trip to Moscow since taking up his post in February.

After being famously "re-set" by Kerry's predecessor Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, ties have once again plunged to new lows following Putin's return to the presidency last year.

But analysts have cautioned little concrete progress is likely to emerge, with relations once again at a new low.

"If there's just a glimmer that they are in the mood, at least for now, to try to put things on a more cordial level, that in itself would be an achievement," said Russia expert Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.

Kerry will continue on to Rome on Wednesday, where he will meet with senior Italian government officials, the State Department said.

He will also encounter Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh and Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni "as part of his ongoing discussions on the path to peace" between Israel and the Palestinians.

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