LONDON — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday that Russia could rebuild its relations with the West "if it simply helps to calm turbulent waters" on its border with eastern Ukraine, where pro-Moscow separatists are fighting with Kiev forces.
Kerry spoke in Basel, Switzerland, at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which includes both the United States and Russia as partners. He met briefly — and separately — with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Georgian Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili.
In his opening remarks, Kerry publicly cited "hundreds of Russian soldiers who fight and die" in Ukraine - alluding to what the U.S. says is proof of Moscow's direct involvement in the fighting. U.S. officials believe an estimated 400 Russian troops have been killed in Ukraine this year.
In their private half-hour meeting, Kerry and Lavrov spoke briefly about the situation in Ukraine, and Kerry urged Lavrov to have Moscow "return to serious discussions" for a cease-fire, a senior State Department official who sat in on the discussion told reporters.
Lavrov did not respond to a reporter's question about the Russian troop deaths in Ukraine.
OSCE has sought to help broker an enduring cease-fire in eastern Ukraine, where it's believed Moscow is supporting the separatists with weapons and troops in their quest to secede from Ukraine's central government.
Kerry called it a "very turbulent year" and noted that when the 57-state OSCE met last year, Ukraine protesters were in the throes of demanding a new government in Kiev.
"They were warmed by a simple desire — to live in a country with an honest government," Kerry said at the start of the OSCE meeting. Over the last year, however, the fledgling leadership in Kiev has been beset by separatists in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, and has seen the Crimea region vote to secede.
Kerry said Kiev has been "tested by external aggression" yet still is "casting off the shackles of repression and opening a new and promising chapter in their nation's history."
He called on Moscow to uphold an earlier cease-fire agreement, which calls for withdrawing its support for the separatists and persuading them to release hostages. The U.S. and European Union have imposed sanctions on some Russians and separatists as punishment for their actions.
"The U.S. and countries that support Ukraine's sovereignty and rights do not seek confrontation," Kerry said. "It is not our design or desire that we see a Russia isolated through its own actions."
"No one gains from this confrontation," Kerry said.
In his annual state-of-the-nation address Thursday in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin defended the annexation of Crimea, describing it as Russia's spiritual ground. But he offered no insight into what Russia's next actions in eastern Ukraine could be.
In Switzerland, Ukraine's Klimkin said, "We're still working on a real, sustainable cease-fire." He added that Kiev had delivered on "all the points" from the cease-fire agreement, and said, "Now it's about Russia."