President Obama has decided to meet with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in New York next week, if it can be arranged, for their first face-to-face encounter in nearly a year as tension rises over the civil war in Syria, American officials said on Wednesday.
Mr. Obama, who has resisted seeing Mr. Putin amid deep division over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine last year, concluded that a meeting might now be useful to reinforce the message that the Kremlin should uphold a cease-fire along its border and at the same time press for diplomacy in Syria.
The leaders would sit down on Monday or Tuesday while in New York for the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly, but the two sides were still trying to finalize a mutually convenient time. The White House declined to confirm the meeting, but administration officials who discussed it on the condition that they not be identified speaking before an announcement said they expected the meeting to happen.
The decision means a break from the administration’s efforts to isolate Russia over its seizure of territory in Ukraine. Russia had indicated for weeks that it wanted a meeting but advisers to Mr. Obama debated whether it was worth engaging Russia given its rising involvement in the Middle East. Some expressed concern that such a meeting would play into Mr. Putin’s hands and reward, in their eyes, an international bully.
But Secretary of State John Kerry supports trying to work with Russia even with the risks, and European allies want Mr. Obama to meet with Mr. Putin to deliver a unified message that Moscow needs to fulfill the peace process in Ukraine known as the Minsk accord.
“If we had an opportunity to speak to the Russians, our focus would be reiterating the messages we and our European partners have hammered home on Ukraine,” said one administration official. “Ukraine would be our focus.”
As for Syria, the official said Mr. Obama would argue that Russia should drop its support for President Bashar al-Assad and join a political effort to transition to a new government. “When it comes to Syria, we’ve always said the only way to resolve this conflict is through diplomacy,” the official said.
Mr. Obama canceled a summit meeting with Mr. Putin in 2013 after Russia gave shelter to Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked documents. After Russia annexed Crimea and supported a pro-Russian separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine, Mr. Obama has limited his contacts even further.
The two have generally just had passing encounters over the last year. They talked in person for a short time on the sidelines of a D-Day anniversary event in France in June 2014, for instance, and also had brief words on the sidelines of an economic summit meeting in Australia in November.
They last talked by telephone in July after Russia joined the United States, China and three European powers in negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran. But through it all, Mr. Kerry has remained in regular contact with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov, and American officials credited the Russians with playing a mostly helpful role during the Iran talks.
But the Kremlin’s latest actions in Syria, where the United States has been conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State, have driven a new wedge between the two countries. Russia has sent more than a couple dozen warplanes as well as tanks, small arms, other equipment and several hundred troops to Syria presumably to bolster the government of Mr. Assad, whom Mr. Obama has called on to surrender power.
Mr. Kerry, who has remained in touch with Mr. Lavrov in recent days, said this week that so far the Russian aircraft sent to Syria were consistent with guarding its own deployment. “For the moment, it is the judgment of our military and most experts that the level and type represents basically force protection,” Mr. Kerry said.
But he warned Russia not to use its force to keep Mr. Assad in power. “If they are there to shore up Assad and to simply stand there in a way that provides Assad with the continued sense that he doesn’t have to negotiate, then I think it’s a problem for Syria and it’s a problem for everybody who wants to bring an end to this conflict, which has gone on for too long now,” Mr. Kerry said.
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