SOCHI, Russia: Moscow and Washington’s top diplomats said Tuesday they were ready to improve ties, ahead of the countries’ highest-level talks in nearly a year as President Vladimir Putin hosts Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Pompeo arrived in the sunny Black Sea resort of Sochi on Tuesday amid a raft of disagreements, from arms control to the raging Venezuela and Iran crises.
At the start of talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and before a planned evening meeting with Putin, Pompeo expressed hope the two rivals could “stabilise the relationship”.
“I am here today because President (Donald) Trump is committed to improving this relationship,” he said.
“We have differences — each country will protect its own interests and look after its own people — but it’s not that we have to be adversaries on every issue.”
Lavrov said Russia was ready to open a new page in ties.
“I believe it’s time to start building a new, more responsible and constructive model of mutual perception of each other,” he said.
“We understand that a lot of suspicions and biases have accumulated on both sides. We win nothing from this.”
Pompeo’s visit to Russia — his first as Secretary of State — came as tensions mounted dangerously in the Gulf, with Iran and the United States engaged in a new war of words over Tehran’s nuclear deal.
Pompeo is the highest-ranking US official to see Putin since last July, when Trump met him in Helsinki.
Then, Trump stunned the US political establishment by appearing to accept the Russian leader’s statement at face value that he did not meddle in the US election, contrary to US intelligence evaluations.
Pompeo was greeted on arrival by local officials including the mayor of Sochi, with whom he exchanged pleasantries on the tarmac.
– Sabre-rattling –
Ahead of the negotiations Putin toured a top military flight test centre in southern Russia and inspected a new nuclear-capable hypersonic missile dubbed Kinzhal (Dagger).
His spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that the display of military muscle was designed to send a message to the Americans.
At a meeting Monday, Putin also tasked his top brass with developing defences against hypersonic weapons.
Peskov slammed what he called Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran, saying it would only drive Tehran into a corner.
Pompeo cancelled a stop in Moscow on Monday to instead have an unscheduled meeting in Brussels with European foreign ministers, who have been uncomfortable with the hawkish direction of the United States on Iran.
The United States has pulled out of the nuclear deal which was backed by the Europeans, Russia and China and slapped sweeping sanctions on Tehran in an all-out effort to curb its regional clout.
The United States has recently ramped up the pressure by saying the deployment to the region of an aircraft carrier strike group and nuclear-capable bombers was to counter vaguely described threats from Iran.
The renewed diplomacy between Moscow and Washington follows a long-awaited report by investigator Robert Mueller.
He found that Russia interfered in the 2016 election but that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow.
Besides Iran, Washington and Moscow are at loggerheads on an array of urgent strategic questions, including Venezuela, the Syrian civil war and the conflict in Ukraine.
The United States has been trying for more than three months to topple Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Pompeo has repeatedly blamed Russia for giving him a lifeline.
Both the United States and Russia hope to make some progress on arms control. Moscow is seeking a five-year extension of the New START treaty, which caps the number of nuclear warheads well below Cold War limits and is set to expire in 2021.
The Trump administration this year pulled out of another key arms control agreement, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, with NATO allies saying a Russian missile system was in violation. Moscow has denied the claims.
Last year Putin revealed a new generation of “invincible” nuclear weapons and warned of a new arms race if America pulled out of weapons treaties.
– ‘Regime slays dissidents’ –
Trump on Monday announced that he expected a “very fruitful meeting” with Putin at the G20 summit in Japan next month, only for Peskov to deny Washington had requested such a meeting.
The US president’s enthusiasm for courting Putin has little support in Washington, even within his own administration.
The administration has kept up a campaign of pressure including sanctions on Russia over alleged election meddling and Moscow’s support for armed separatists in Ukraine.
Pompeo, despite his close relationship with Trump, left little doubt where he stood in remarks Saturday in California.
“We can see now 30 years on, after the end of the Cold War, that the Putin regime slays dissidents in cold blood and invades its neighbours,” Pompeo said.—AFP