Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Thursday that the U.S. was pressing for a deal with Russia on both Syria and Ukraine, a proposal that will be the focus of one-on-one talks next week between President Obama and President Vladimir Putin.
Putin and Obama were to meet Monday in New York on the sidelines of the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly for their first major discussions in more than a year.
"Given the situations in Ukraine and Syria, despite our profound differences with Moscow, the president believes that it would be irresponsible not to test whether we can make progress through high-level engagement with the Russians," a senior Obama administration official said in a statement.
At a Pentagon briefing with Ukraine's Defense Minister, Carter said, "We will continue to work with Russia where our interests overlap" despite the Russian military buildup in Syria and ongoing violations of the ceasefire in Ukraine.
"It is possible but not yet clear that such an overlap might exist in Syria," Carter added. He said the U.S. shared interests with Russia on defeating militants affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS (also known as ISIL), and on achieving a political transition in Syria, although Russia has showed no signs of wavering in its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Without a political solution, "the Russian effort to fight ISIL will only end up fueling the Syrian civil war," Carter said.
On Ukraine, Carter said that the "ongoing discussions on Syria will not in any way take away from our strong condemnation of Russia's action in Ukraine, or change our sanctions and security support in response to those destabilizing actions."
"The bottom line is this -- Russia must end its aggression in Ukraine, end its occupation and annexation of Crimea and uphold its commitments under the Minsk agreements" on a ceasefire, Carter said.
Cater pointed to the more than $244 million in non-lethal equipment provided by the U.S. to Ukraine, including Humvees, night vision equipment and body armor, but he stopped short of saying that the U.S. would provide the heavy weaponry Ukraine has long sought. At his nomination hearing last January, Carter said he favored providing arms to Ukraine.
With Carter at his side, Ukraine's Defense Minister, Colonel-General Stepan Poltorak, said the subject of arming Ukraine did not come up in his private meeting with Carter.
"The issue of lethal equipment was not on the table," Poltorak said. He also warned the Americans to be wary of dealing with Putin.
The focus on Syria could be a plan by Putin "to divert attention from Ukraine," Poltorak said through an interpreter. However, with continued U.S. and international community support "together we will win," he said.
--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.