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Pompeo set to meet Putin, with the U.S. and Russia at odds over a raft of crises

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/14/2019 Anton Troianovski

SOCHI, Russia —Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in this Black Sea resort city on Tuesday, intensifying a high-stakes round of diplomacy as Moscow and Washington wrangle over a raft of crises around the globe.

After landing in Sochi, Pompeo quickly told his Russian hosts that the United States was interested in improving ties with Moscow despite a wide range of disagreements between the two nuclear superpowers.

“It’s not destined that we’re adversaries on every issue,” Pompeo told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the start of their meeting. “I hope that we can find places where we have a set of overlapping interests and can truly begin to build out strong relationships, at least on those particular issues.”

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Later in the day, Pompeo is scheduled to meet with Putin at the Russian president’s summer residence here. The two will likely square off over Venezuela and Iran, two countries where the United States and Russia are increasingly at odds. They will navigate through a host of other global hotspots — potentially including China, North Korea, Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine — where Moscow and Washington each have their own, often clashing, interests.

And they may face questions over the sustainability of a U.S.-Russian dialogue at a time when many Trump administration critics in the United States say the White House still has not done enough to respond to Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

At a joint news conference with his Russian counterpart, Pompeo said he had raised the issue with Lavrov.

“There are things that Russia can do to demonstrate that those kinds of activities are a thing of the past,” Pompeo said. If Russia were to interfere again in the 2020 U.S. election, Pompeo said, “it would put us in an even worse place.” 

a man in a suit and tie: Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, gestures while speaking to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during their meeting in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Monday, May 13, 2019. © Alexander Nemenov/AP Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, gestures while speaking to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during their meeting in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Monday, May 13, 2019.

The potential for Russia and the United States to cooperate was tested on Tuesday in the field of nuclear arms control. Pompeo said in the news conference that President Trump remains interest in bringing other countries, including China, into an arms-control framework — an idea that has drawn skepticism in Moscow.

In a striking bit of counterprogramming, Putin examined a new hypersonic, nuclear-capable missile system at a southern Russian defense plant before his meeting with Pompeo. The Kremlin insisted that the visit was coincidental.

The United States backed out of a Cold War-era treaty with Russia limiting short- and medium-range ground-based missiles this year, citing Russian violations.

Russian officials, meanwhile, have said they are eager to extend the New START accord, governing U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons, which expires in 2021. Pompeo was noncommittal after his talks with Lavrov when asked whether the United States was prepared to extend the treaty.

“We will gather together teams that will work not only on New START and its potential extension but on a broader range of arms-control initiatives,” Pompeo said.

While Trump has floated the idea of including China in a three-way arms-control treaty, Russian officials have said that doing so would be unrealistic and that extending the bilateral New START accord should be the main goal in U.S.-Russian arms-control talks.

“Topical issues, such as bilateral relations, strategic stability and disarmament, will be discussed,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “These include regional hotspots: Iran, Syria and Venezuela, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and other possible issues.”

Pompeo arrived in Sochi on Tuesday morning, Eastern time, from Brussels, where he held impromptu talks with European officials on Monday. Pompeo had been previously scheduled to spend Monday in Moscow to meet Americans based in Russia and to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. But a growing threat from Iran, the State Department said, spurred Pompeo to cancel the Moscow leg of his trip and fly to Brussels instead.

Russia is an ally of the Iranian government and has been a vociferous critic of U.S. moves to put pressure on Tehran. Moscow is a signatory to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, from which the Trump administration withdrew last year, and has pledged to work with European countries to sustain it.

“We will try to make sure that the situation doesn’t devolve into a war scenario,” Lavrov said at the news conference with Pompeo. “How to do it is the diplomats’ business. I got the feeling that the American side is also interested in a political solution.”

In Venezuela, Russia backs President Nicolás Maduro and has accused the United States of trying to foment a coup against him. Pompeo and other U.S. officials have called on Russia to pull back from Venezuela, but Putin has shown no sign that he is prepared to do so.

Pompeo is expected to meet with Putin later Tuesday at Bocharov Ruchey, the president’s summer residence where he often receives international guests — including President George W. Bush in 2008.

Putin has invested billions of dollars to turn Sochi, nestled at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains on the coast of the Black Sea, into a high-end, Western-style resort city. He has also made it a key diplomatic venue. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi paid a visit to Bocharov Ruchey on Monday, and Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen will meet with Putin here on Wednesday.

Pompeo’s trip comes amid a flurry of new talks between Moscow and Washington. Lavrov and Pompeo previously met in Finland earlier this month, and Trump and Putin recently spoke by phone for more than an hour.

“Considering we have met two times in the last two weeks, that’s a reason for optimism,” Lavrov told Pompeo at the start of their meeting. “Let’s try and see what happens.”

But Russia’s optimism is guarded. Trump said Monday that he would meet Putin in person at the Group of 20 summit in Japan in June. Kremlin spokesman Peskov, however, said Tuesday that a formal request from the White House for such a meeting has yet to arrive, and he noted that Trump canceled a meeting just before the two presidents were scheduled to meet in December.

“We of course heard President Trump's statement that he expects to hold a meeting with President Putin,” Lavrov said in the news conference. “If such a proposal officially arrives, then we will of course respond to it affirmatively.”

Some commentators and politicians in Moscow have voiced hope that with the end of the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian election interference, Trump may be in a better position to make good on his stated desire to improve relations with Russia. But others caution that even if Trump were to have more room to maneuver at home, the interests of the two countries continue to diverge around the world.

“The domestic political atmosphere in the United States might seem to have become more favorable,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, a Russian international affairs analyst who has advised the Kremlin. “But in terms of foreign policy, things just keep getting worse.” 


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