"We're just at the beginning of trying to understand what the Russians intentions are in Syria, in Iraq, and to try and see if there are mutually beneficial ways forward here," a senior State Department Official said Sunday. "We've got a long way to go in that conversation."
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Ahead of the Obama-Putin encounter, Secretary of State John Kerry had a "preparatory" meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in New York where both Syria and Ukraine were discussed.
The "very constructive" discussion involved a "very thorough exchange of views on both the military and the political implications of Russia's increased engagement in Syria," according to the senior State Department official.
Putin insisted that Russia's presence in Syria was "under entirely legal international contracts," telling "60 Minutes" that it only has supplied weapons to the government, personnel training and humanitarian aid.
He also criticized U.S. efforts to train moderate opposition and suggested Washington was in violation of international law by supporting non-state structures.
Kerry struck a slightly more conciliatory note on Sunday, saying from New York that discussions with Russia were "the beginning of a genuine effort to see if there is a way to de-conflict, but also to find a way forward that will be effective in keeping a united, secular Syria that can be at peace and stable again."
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Beyond bridging the divides over Syria, Obama and Putin also were poised to discuss the problem of Ukraine — one of the main drivers of the broadening wedge between the U.S. and Russia.
After Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014, the U.S. and other Western nations imposed sanctions on Moscow. The U.S. also has accused Russia of supporting an insurgency in eastern Ukraine —allegations Moscow staunchly denies.
"The situation in Ukraine continues to be of significant concern and our support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine will be front and center throughout our discussions, particularly with President Putin," Ben Rhodes, White House national security adviser, told reporters on Thursday.
However, the ongoing conflict in Syria — and Moscow's unmitigated support for embattled Assad — appears to have eclipsed the urgency of the Ukraine conflict heading into the annual General Assembly.