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John Kerry likens US-Russia relationship to hockey

Secretary of State John Kerry tried to put a positive spin on the deteriorating U.S.-Russia relationship ahead of talks with Russian leaders in Washington Friday, comparing the recent friction between the two countries to typical sparring in a hockey game.

“Sergei Lavrov and I are old hockey players and we both know that diplomacy, like hockey, can sometimes result in the occasional collision,” Kerry said, alluding to Russia’s foreign minister before contentious discussions behind closed doors.

But that’s putting it lightly.

U.S. and Russian leaders have been at loggerheads over a series of issues, ranging from Syria to human-rights violations. But when Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to give National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden asylum, that episode became the final straw for the Obama administration.

The high-level discussions in Washington come just after President Obama withdrew from planned one-on-one talks with Putin in Moscow next month. Both sides have tried to minimize the fallout over the spat, but Obama’s actions epitomized the brewing U.S. frustration with Putin’s regime.

Obama certainly will be asked about the fallout during a press conference at 3 p.m. Friday, his first solo, extended question-and-answer session with journalists in three months. Obama will face reporters before departing to Martha’s Vineyard for a weeklong vacation starting Saturday.

Despite personal lobbying from the White House, Putin opted to grant Snowden refuge for up to a year in Russia. The ex-CIA official leaked extensive details about U.S. phone and Internet surveillance programs, stoking a broader debate in Washington about the oversight of counterterroism programs.

Kerry insisted Friday that the Snowden affair would not sidetrack discussions about an array of issues facing the two countries.

“It’s no secret that we have experienced some challenging moments and obviously not just over the Snowden case,” he said. “We will discuss these differences today, for certain, but this meeting remains important above and beyond the collisions and moments of disagreement.”

The leaders are also likely to focus on the deadly civil war in Syria. Putin has supplied resources to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to use against the anti-government rebels there, drawing widespread condemnation from the United States and its allies.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu are also participating in the meetings between the two countries.

Russian leaders have voiced their disappointment with Obama’s decision to cancel on Putin. And Lavrov, Russia’s top diplomat, had a simple message before discussions with Kerry and Hagel.

“We need to work as grownups,” Lavrov said.