U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s first trip to Russia started off on a light note Tuesday as he and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov prepared for talks on issues such as arms control that are aimed at improving Russia-U.S. relations.
Both Pompeo and Lavrov smiled and appeared to be at ease when they greeted each other in the Black Sea city of Sochi, with the secretary of state telling his Russian counterpart, “Great to see you again!” The two saw each last week in Finland at a meeting of the eight-member Arctic Council.
Lavrov affirmed he and Pompeo seeing each other for the second time in less than two weeks “gives certain optimism.”
Moscow and Washington are overdue to dispel “suspicions and prejudices on both sides,” Lavrov said, and to “start building a new constructive framework” of how Russia and the U.S see each other.
Pompeo said in televised remarks at the meeting on Tuesday that he came to Russia because President Donald Trump was “committed to improve this relationship” despite differences between the United States and Russia on Syria, Iran, the crisis in Venezuela, and other matters.
“I hope that we can find places where we have overlapping interests and can truly begin to build out strong relationships,” Pompeo said, citing the fight against terrorism and regional conflicts as potential areas for co-operation.
Pompeo said improved ties between the two countries — damaged by Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and U.S. sanctions against Russia — “will be good not only for our two countries but for the whole world as well.”
Pompeo is expected to meet later with President Vladimir Putin, who had a tour of a military facility on his calendar for a second day in a row. A Kremlin spokesperson rejected the notion that Putin’s schedule was an intentional “message” for the U.S. administration.
Conflict over Syria
Lavrov and Pompeo are likely to talk about arms control after the U.S. pulled out of the INF, a key post-Cold War security treaty, and indicated its interests in a new agreement that also includes China.
Iran is another pressing issue after Trump withdrew a year ago from a 2015 nuclear agreement between six world powers and Iran, and reinstated economic sanctions on Iran’s energy and finance sectors. Russia is one of the remaining signatories, and Lavrov is likely to stress to Pompeo the deal’s importance for international security.
Russia and the U.S. also do not see eye to eye when it comes to Syria, where government forces have been leading a major offensive against the last rebel-held province in recent weeks. The U.S. has urged Russia to end escalating airstrikes in the province of Idlib, while Moscow insists its role there is limited.
“Let’s try and see what happens,” Lavrov said before he and Pompeo went behind closed doors for their meeting.
Trump told reporters at the White House on Monday that he would meet with Putin during the G20 summit in Japan in late June, but no formal meetings have been announced by either government.
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