Putin, Pompeo eye better ties despite disputes

They signal that there are overlapping areas of interest, such as addressing North Korea’s nuclear threat

SOCHI • Russian President Vladimir Putin and US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo met on Tuesday on the shores of the Black Sea and said they are committed to improving ties between their nations.

It won’t be easy. Putin’s 90-minute meeting with Pompeo in the resort city of Sochi represented an initial step toward addressing a wide range of disputes between the two nations and a search for common ground.

“My impression is that the president is set to restore Russian-American relations, contacts, to jointly resolve issues that are of mutual interest to us,” Putin said of US President Donald Trump before sitting down for talks.

“For our part, we have repeatedly said that we would also like to restore full-format relations.”

Yet, the two men acknowledged that Moscow and Washington continue to fundamentally disagree on key issues, such as how to lower tensions in hot spots including Ukraine, Venezuela and Iran, and the consequences of Russian interference in US elections.

A wide range of US sanctions remain in place against the Russian economy and, with bipartisan congressional support, are unlikely to be lifted soon.

But separately, Putin and Pompeo signalled that there are overlapping areas of interest, such as addressing North Korea’s nuclear threat and finding a way forward in places such as Syria and Afghanistan.

Pompeo described the talks as “very productive”.

“There’s places we disagree,” Pompeo said. “There’s places I think there are truly overlapping interests that we can build on, and most importantly, President Trump very much wants to do that.”

Before boarding his plane back to Washington, he also issued a warning on the prospect of Russian meddling in the 2020 presidential election.

“We’ll continue to do the things we need to do to protect our elections in 2020 and I don’t think you could be mistaken about America finding that Russian interference is unacceptable in the 2020 election,’’ Pompeo said. “I said it as clearly as I could.”

The meeting did advance talks on arranging a possible meeting between Trump and Putin at the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Japan next month, after the US president said on Monday that he would see the Kremlin leader.

Putin’s top foreign policy advisor, Yuri Ushakov, said “we are ready to have any meetings, contacts, especially at the highest level. They are very important.”

Touching on one of the biggest foreign policy issues facing the Trump administration, Pompeo said he told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the US “fundamentally doesn’t want war with Iran”, while Lavrov warned of the risk of being pulled into a spiral of crisis over the Islamic Republic.

Lavrov also said the end of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into the 2016 US election is an opportunity to reset relations, and he called accusations of election interference “complete fiction”.

“We agreed on the importance of restoring channels of communications that had recently been frozen,” Lavrov said at their joint news conference.

“I hope that after the publication of the Mueller report, passions on the other side of the ocean will subside and it will be possible finally to move forward toward more constructive interaction.”

In fact, Mueller reported that his investigation didn’t establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government “despite multiple efforts by Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign”.

Both sides described the talks on Tuesday as “frank”, saying that they want to improve relations strained for years over the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine and, more recently, over strategic arms control and US efforts to oust Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro.

“I’m here today because President Trump is committed to improving this relationship,” Pompeo told Lavrov at the start of their meeting. “It’s not destined that we’re adversaries on every issue.”

Lavrov said they agreed to engage on other arms control issues, including on a possible extension of the US-Russia New Start nuclear treaty that’s set to expire in 2021.

Lavrov also said there may be hope for some agreement on Iran that would win backing by both Russia and the US, after Trump pulled out of the international accord on Tehran’s nuclear programme.

However, they offered few details about how they could improve relations, in contrast to the variety of differences they outlined.

There’s “no pivot in sight, no breakthrough in the offing”, Moscow Carnegie Centre director Dmitri Trenin wrote on Twitter before the news conference.

“Contacts will continue, but normalisation will be long in coming.”

Before meeting Pompeo, Putin flew to a flight-test airbase in the southern Astrakhan region escorted by six of Russia’s latest Su-57 stealth fighter jets to inspect new hypersonic weapons he’s touted as invulnerable to US defences.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was a scheduled inspection visit and dismissed as “conspiracy theories” suggestions that it was a signal to Washington.

Trump stunned Russian officials in November by scrapping a meeting with Putin at the G-20 summit in Argentina with a Twitter announcement the day before the talks, blaming tensions over Russia’s capture of Ukrainian sailors.

That followed the cancellation of talks planned for Paris during Nov 11 commemorations for the centenary of the end of World War I.

It’s not clear what’s changed since then. At the time, Trump cited Russia’s failure to release Ukrainian ships and sailors seized during clashes in the Kerch Strait near Crimea as the reason for his refusal to meet Putin.

The sailors remain in detention as Russia continues plans to prosecute them, said Nikolai Polozov, who’s leading their defence team.

Ushakov, the foreign policy aide, said Pompeo didn’t raise issue with Putin, though it was part of the secretary’s talks with Lavrov. — Bloomberg