— -- What a difference a year makes.
In February 2014, the world's attention was focused on the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and on Russia's effort to pull off a successful spectacle. But just days after the Olympics ended, the attention remained on Russia as Russian troops moved into the Crimea region to seize it from Ukraine's military. The subsequent annexation of Crimea and continued Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine have brought Russia's relationship with the West to its lowest point since the end of the Cold War.
On Tuesday, Sochi will be the site of a meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian President Vladimir Putin, part of Kerry's first visit to Russia in two years, according to the State Department. Acting State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the meeting was "confirmed," though Putin's top spokesman told a Russian radio station earlier Monday that no decision had been made yet about a meeting between the two.
"This trip is part of our ongoing effort to maintain direct lines of communication with senior Russian officials and to ensure U.S. views are clearly conveyed," Harf said in a statement announcing Kerry's trip and his meeting with Putin.
While Ukraine will be "a huge topic of conversation" between Kerry and Putin, Harf said the talks will also center on other diplomatic issues where the U.S and Russia have continued to work together.
That includes the nuclear talks with Iran, an issue where Harf has described Russia as being "in lock step" with the U.S. and working towards a negotiated end to the Syrian civil war. But she said Kerry's meeting with Putin will also be an opportunity "to discuss ones where we very strongly disagree, like Ukraine."
The United States and the international community have continued to put pressure on Russia to step back its involvement in eastern Ukraine. The State Department has repeatedly accused Russia and Russian separatists of having violated a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine.
Recently, American defense officials have said the Russian-supported separatists are using the cover of the Minsk agreement to regenerate forces for another offensive against Ukrainian forces. Russia has fired back, accusing the Ukrainian government of also violating the agreement and criticized the U.S. for meddling in the region.
"We've seen statements like this from the Russians repeatedly," Harf said on Monday. "We've made clear what has happened here and that the Russians are the ones who are responsible for deescalating and pulling back. We only took actions in response to their actions."
The Russians are hinting that Kerry's visit will "serve to normalize bilateral relations" between the two countries.
Harf thought that term did not apply, but said the opportunity to discuss areas of disagreement was worthwhile.
"Just because you strongly disagree with what a country is doing doesn't mean you shouldn't meet with them. In fact, it actually means you should to try and make progress," said Harf.