(CNSNews.com) – Presidential climate envoy John Kerry this week became the first senior member of the Biden administration to visit Russia, but White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday rejected suggestions that the former secretary of state may be discussing issues other than those related to his current portfolio.
Kerry’s three-day visit to Moscow comes three months after he became the first Cabinet-level official to travel to China. The visits underline the unusual nature of his brief as the U.S. looks to cooperate on climate – an administration priority – with two of America’s leading adversaries.
In Moscow, Kerry met with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, with whom he worked closely when secretary of state, including on issues relating to Iran’s nuclear programs and the Syrian civil war.
Lavrov told Kerry his visit was “an important and positive signal from the point of view of promoting bilateral relations, removing tensions and establishing professional substantive activities in areas where we can find common ground.”
Kerry also met with President Vladimir Putin ‘s climate adviser, Ruslan Edelgeriev. A Kremlin statement on those talks said, “a desire was expressed to leave behind the political divisions for a joint response to climate change.”
And on Wednesday, Kerry spoke by phone with Putin, who according to the Kremlin stressed that Moscow wanted “a depoliticized and professional dialogue” relating to achieving the goals of the Paris climate accord.
“Overall, it was agreed that climate change is one of the areas where Russia and the United States have common interests and similar approaches,” it said.
A State Department readout of the call said Kerry and Putin, “recognizing recent extreme weather events and other climate impacts, as well as the urgency to act,” had “underscored the importance of the United States and Russia working together across a range of climate issues.”
At the White House, Psaki was asked whether Kerry had taken any “additional messages” to Moscow.
“Is he talking about climate only or something on top of that as well?” a reporter asked.
“The former secretary of state, my former boss, the special envoy – he’s got a lot of titles – his purview is on climate,” replied Psaki, who served as spokesperson for the Kerry State Department during the Obama-Biden administration.
“That is what the focus of his conversations and discussions are,” she added.
When Biden and Putin met in Geneva in June to discuss a deeply-troubled bilateral relationship, they agreed to set up a process of “strategic stability” talks between the world’s two biggest nuclear-armed nations.
Russia’s deputy foreign minister and its ambassador to the United Nations have both said the talks would begin before the end of July, although Psaki said she had no information to share “in terms of a timeline.”
Kerry’s visit to Russia comes three months after the Kremlin announced sanctions on eight senior administration officials, three of them fellow cabinet members, in retaliation for U.S. sanctions against senior and mid-level Russian officials over the poisoning and imprisonment of Putin critic Alexey Navalny.
(China has yet to sanction Biden administration officials, but last month its rubberstamp legislature passed a law to facilitate retaliatory sanctions. Beijing earlier sanctioned senior Trump administration officials and Republican critics in Washington.)
With regard to both Russia and China, administration officials speak frequently about some elements of each relationship being adversarial while others offer the potential for collaboration, with climate falling squarely in the latter category.
“It is not a secret that we have profound differences with the Russian Federation on any number of issues, and I need not go into them,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Tuesday.
“But it’s also not a secret – and you saw this in the form of President Biden meeting with President Putin – that we believe there are going to be certain areas where our interests align.”
“Secretary Kerry at the moment is testing the proposition as to whether we can work together on the global and existential challenge of climate change,” Price said. “Russia is one of the world’s most prolific [greenhouse gas] emitters, and so Russia has a responsibility, as does the United States, to be ambitious in its climate targets.”
The 2015 Paris climate accord aimed at preventing average global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, by achieving “net-zero” greenhouse gases emissions by the second half of the century.
Kerry signed the Paris accord on behalf of the Obama administration, but President Trump in 2017 formally gave notice of withdrawal from the agreement. Biden reversed the move hours after his inauguration in January.
Three years after the Paris deal was struck, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that limiting the temperature rise to just 1.5 degrees would now be necessary, and warned that the Earth had only until around 2030 to do so.