WASHINGTON The United States and Russia must find ways to work around their sharp differences and agree on approaches to Syria and other global trouble spots, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday, as the two countries launched high-level talks.
U.S.-Russia ties, deeply strained over Moscow's decision to grant asylum to former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden, were "marked by both shared interests and, at times, colliding and conflicting interests," he said in Washington.
"We will discuss these differences today, for certain, but this meeting remains important above and beyond the collisions and the moments of disagreement," said Kerry.
Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are hosting their Russian counterparts Sergei Lavrov and Sergei Shoigu for about five hours of so-called "2+2" strategic and security talks.
Kerry said it is critical that the two countries be clear about differences but also seek progress on missile defense, Afghanistan, nuclear disputes with Iran and North Korea and the two-year-old civil war in Syria.
While Washington and Moscow differ on key aspects of the Syria crisis, Kerry said, "Both of us and our countries agree that to avoid institutional collapse and descent into chaos, the ultimate answer is a negotiated political solution."
Lavrov's opening remarks underscored "shared responsibility" to address sources of global instability. He echoed Kerry in stressing the need to get Syria's government and opposition talking in Geneva.
"Our goal is the same," Lavrov said of Syria. "We need to start a political process."
The talks at the State Department opened as the political mood between the two countries hit one of its lowest points since the end of the Cold War.
President Barack Obama's cancellation this week of a summit in Moscow over President Vladimir Putin's decision to give Snowden asylum put to rest any notion that a much-vaunted "reset" of ties with Moscow sought by the United States in recent years is alive.
U.S. officials expect no breakthroughs on Friday, but they say the very decision to go ahead with the talks despite the frictions is significant in itself.
Moscow and Washington disagree over a long list of issues, from Syria's civil war to human rights and Russia's ban on homosexual "propaganda." But there are some areas, critical to global security, where they have been able to work together.
"Of course, we have disagreements. We'll continue discussing matters on which we disagree calmly and candidly," Lavrov said.
Citing trade as an area of cooperation, he said the Russians "want (the) economy to be way more dominant in our relations."
"We have laid a very solid foundation for future work," he said through an interpreter.
Hagel and Shoigu held talks earlier on Friday, and both said they agreed to work to expand military-to-military cooperation.
(Reporting by Paul Eckert; Editing by Philip Barbara)