State Department photo/ Public Domain(MOSCOW) — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi as part of a renewed effort by the White House and Kremlin to improve relations following the publication of the Mueller report.
Putin told Pompeo he hoped to restore relations and that the conclusion of the special counsel investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election meant that was possible.
"Despite all the exotic work of Mr. Mueller's commission, I have to give him his due: on the whole, he conducted an objective investigation and confirmed the absence of any traces of a conspiracy between Russia and the current administration," Putin told Pompeo at Bocharov Ruchey, his residence outside the city.
While the Mueller report did not conclude that the Trump campaign illegally conspired with Russia to meddle in the election, it did detail many interactions between members of the campaign and Russians. It also detailed in depth the extent and scope of Russia's interference in the 2016 election.
Putin said allegations of meddling had spoiled U.S.-Russia relations, but, "I'm hoping today the situation is changing."
Putin said he now had "the impression that the president is inclined towards the restoration of Russian-American ties, contacts and to solving issues together," referring to a call he had with Trump.
This meeting is the latest step in renewed outreach by the Trump administration to fulfill the president's long-held goal of establishing friendlier relations with Russia. The May 3 telephone call was described as lengthy and positive by both sides, and Trump said during it the two discussed the "Russian hoax." On Tuesday, Trump announced he would meet with Putin at a G20 summit in Japan next month.
Pompeo's visit, his first to Russia as Secretary of State, was unusually upbeat. Earlier in the day, he met with foreign minister Sergey Lavorv, and both sought to smooth over areas where the U.S. and Russia disagree.
Pompeo told Lavrov Trump is "committed to improving this relationship" and that the two countries were "not destined to be adversaries on every issue."
At a joint press conference afterwards, Lavrov — who referred to Pompeo as "Mike" throughout — said he had concluded it was "entirely possible" to normalize relations.
In reality, many experts question how easy that would be, especially with Russia and the U.S. on opposing sides in many crises around the world, most recently in Venezuela. The White House also faces resistance in the U.S., where critics have accused it of failing to do enough to deter Russia from interfering in future elections.
In Sochi, Pompeo said he had raised election meddling in conversation and made it clear the U.S. would not tolerate Russian interference in the 2020 presidential election, warning it would put Russian-American relations in an "even worse place."
Lavrov, however, dismissed the election allegations again as "complete fiction," before giving a length discourse on historical occasions when the U.S. and Russia have accused one another of interference or pledged to avoid it, including in the 1930s.
Pompeo tried to smooth over the dispute with humor, saying, "You can see we have some disagreements on this issue. I promise not to go back to the early '30s."
Pompeo and Lavrov said the two discussed a range of issues, including Venezuela, Syria, Ukraine, as well as arms control and North Korea.
The escalating crisis with Iran has also hung over the trip. Pompeo cancelled a planned Moscow leg of his visit on Monday, instead diverting to Brussels to inform European leaders about U.S. intentions regarding Iran, after it deployed additional forces to the region.
Following unexplained sabotage attacks on four commercial ships over the weekend, there have been mounting fears that the crisis could slide into an inadvertent military conflict.
Those worries were intensified on Monday, after The New York Times reported the Pentagon prepared plans that would see 120,000 American troops deployed to the region if Iran or its proxies mounts an attack on American forces there.
In Sochi, Lavrov said Russia wanted to assist in ensuring the crisis with Iran did not "tip over into war." He said Pompeo had told him the report of the 120,000 troops plan was "rumors" and said he felt "the U.S. side had a commitment to finding a political solution."
Pompeo said "we fundamentally do not see a war with Iran," but warned, "We've made clear to the Iranians if American interests are attacked we most certainly will respond in an appropriate fashion."
He said he had no information about who was responsible for the damage to four cargo ships off the coast of the United Arab Emirates over the weekend.
Despite the conciliatory tone, Russia and the U.S. remain apart on many issues. In Venezuela, Russia has been backing president Nicolas Maduro, rejecting calls for him to step down by opposition leader Juan Guaido, who the U.S. and dozens of other countries support.
The clash between the U.S. and Russia over Venezuela has intensified in recent weeks, with Pompeo last month directly accusing Russia of blocking a deal that would have seen Maduro leave the country.
Trump though publicly has placed himself at odds with his advisers, including Pompeo. After their call last week, Trump said he believed "Putin is not looking at all to get involved" in Venezuela other than "he'd like to see something positive happen."
In Sochi, Pompeo said he had again told Lavrov Russia should stop supporting Maduro. Lavrov, though, reiterated Moscow's position that there should be talks between the opposition and Maduro and compared the U.S. efforts to force him out to the American interventions in Iraq and Libya.
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