The top U.S. diplomat will have an opportunity to probe Putin, whose actions are drawing more attention to the inner workings of the Kremlin than at any time since the end of the Cold War. U.S. officials and analysts are trying to assess how much muscle-flexing the Russian leader plans in Europe and elsewhere as he seeks to reestablish Russia as a major power.
"Putin wants to end his isolation, this is not something which he feels comfort about," Alexander Baunov, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said by e-mail. "Kerry's goal is to see whether Putin is serious about peace in Ukraine."
In addition to Ukraine, Kerry and Putin are likely to discuss the negotiations for an Iran nuclear deal, efforts to end civil wars in Yemen and Syria, where Russia is embattled ruler Bashar al-Assad's staunchest ally, and counterterrorism activities.
Kerry will stop in Sochi on his way to a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Turkey, where the allies' discussion will include the prospects for a new flare-up of fighting in Ukraine and steps to prevent alliance members such as the Baltic states from facing aggression by Russia.
U.S. officials such as Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO's top commander, have said Russian-backed Ukrainian rebels have been using a lull in fighting under a cease-fire agreed to in February to prepare for a possible new offensive. Breedlove said the U.S. needs to increase its deterrence efforts in order to manage Putin's "opportunistic confidence."
The U.S.'s intelligence assessment is that a renewed offensive by Ukrainian rebels is coming, and could be aimed at the southeastern port city of Mariupol, said U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified assessments. Kharkiv in the northeast, Ukraine's second-largest city, is also also a possibility because attention is so focused on the land corridor to Crimea, the officials said.
Putin has repeatedly blamed the U.S. for fueling the conflict in Ukraine by supporting the opposition coup against President Viktor Yanukovych's regime, which was overthrown in February 2014. For Putin, the meeting with Kerry will be an opportunity to demand that the U.S. pressure the government in Kiev for more concessions.
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U.S. officials have said they're pleased that tensions over Ukraine haven't led to Russia disrupting efforts by world powers to reach a verifiable accord with Iran. Even so, the U.S. was unhappy when Putin last month lifted his ban on delivery of the sophisticated S-300 air-defense system to Iran. Kerry still needs to get Russian support for details of how sanctions would "snap back" into place if Iran failed to live up to the accord being sought with the U.S., Russia and four other nations.
The Kerry-Putin meeting comes days after Russia's memorial ceremony in Moscow marking the 70th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. The event featured the largest military parade there since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Leaders of the U.S. and most European nations boycotted the events because of Russia's actions in Ukraine.
The tensions were evident in Putin's speech marking the occasion. He said peaceful conditions are jeopardized by "attempts to create a unipolar world," a phrase Russia now uses to refer to U.S. diplomatic and military primacy since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who skipped the parade, instead met Sunday with Putin. The pair laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near the Kremlin.
Merkel, who has been the West's key interlocutor with Putin, said at a press conference that the Russian leader's "illegal" annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the conflict in Ukraine had caused a "severe setback" in ties. She urged Putin to use his influence on separatists in eastern Ukraine to support the cease-fire.
Coming soon after Victory Day parade, one of the U.S. officials said, a new Russian offensive would build on the nationalism inherent in celebrating the Soviet Union's victory over fascism -- a term Putin now uses to describe Ukrainian forces fighting Russia-backed Ukrainian separatists.