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Pompeo set to meet Putin in first official visit to Russia since Mueller report

Sabra Ayres And Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

MOSCOW -- As U.S. tensions with Iran simmer, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo was in Russia on Tuesday to discuss a crowded agenda of deep differences with Russian President Vladimir Putin and possibly arrange a future summit with President Donald Trump.

Pompeo began the visit with a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. In opening remarks, Pompeo said he hoped the talks would allow the two sides to "build upon areas that the two countries share in common," such as the fight against terrorism, arms control and common interests in regional conflicts.

"I hope this good-faith effort on the part of our two nations ... will stabilize the relationship and put it back on a trajectory that I think would be good for not only each of our two countries and people, but for the world as well," Pompeo said.

Pompeo was making his first visit to Russia since becoming secretary of State. It is also the first time a senior U.S. official has been to Russia since the scathing report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III detailed extensive meddling by Russia in the 2016 presidential election aimed at benefiting Trump.

The Kremlin has vehemently denied the accusations. Putin and other senior Russian officials have blamed a Washington-led campaign of "Russophobia" for deteriorating relations between Moscow and the West.

Ahead of Tuesday's meeting, Pompeo seemed to minimize the report's findings, saying he might discuss meddling with Russian authorities but that the phenomenon was nothing new.

Pompeo was scheduled to meet Putin in the early evening, after a working lunch with the Russian foreign minister.

"We'll certainly talk about that," Pompeo said of election interference in a television interview on the eve of his travel to Russia from Brussels, where he lobbied European leaders on Iran. But, he added, "This has been a long-standing challenge where the Soviet Union and then Russia have tried to impact Western democracies, not just ours but others as well."

The U.S. and Russia diverge dramatically on numerous issues, including Iran's nuclear aspirations and the U.S. attempt to overthrow Venezuela's leftist government led by Nicolas Maduro. But Pompeo has said he hopes Washington and Moscow can find agreement on fighting global terrorism and on resolving the conflict in Afghanistan, where both nations have been dragged into costly wars in recent decades.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin's agenda for the Pompeo meeting includes bilateral relations, strategic stability and disarmament issues. The Russian president also planned to raise discussions on regional crises in Iran, Syria and Venezuela, as well as the Korean peninsula denuclearization, Peskov told Russian media.

"We have lots of places where I hope we can find overlapping interests with Russia," Pompeo said before arriving in Russia. "It may be the case that we can't; and where we can't, we'll go our own ways."


Sitting across from the secretary of State at a long, formal table ahead of the meeting in Sochi, Lavrov said that the fact that this was the second meeting in as many weeks with Pompeo showed a good-faith effort on both sides to improve the relationship between Washington and Moscow.

"Considering that we have met twice over the last two weeks is a reason for optimism," he said.

Still, the U.S. and Russia must rebuild trust before realizing any hope of moving forward, Lavrov said.

"We see that there are certain suspicions or prejudices on both sides, but this is not a way to have a win-win situation," he said. "The mistrust that we have hinders both your security and our security and causes concerns around the globe."

On Monday, Pompeo detoured from a scheduled direct flight to Russia and stopped in Brussels, where European foreign ministers were meeting. He hoped to convince them to join the U.S. in isolating Iran and cutting off all oil sales and other trade with the Islamic Republic. But he got a frosty reception from Europeans who believe the Trump administration is inflaming tensions with Tehran unnecessarily.

"We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident, with an escalation that is unintended really on either side but ends with some kind of conflict," British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said.

The U.S., alone, pulled out of a landmark 2015 international agreement with Iran to curb its nuclear-production capabilities in exchange for sanctions relief, saying the deal did not go far enough in stopping Tehran's other "malign behavior," including support for militant groups throughout the Middle East. Europeans who were also party to the deal said it was working and should be perfected instead of jettisoned.

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