Russian President Vladimir Putin told the United States’ top diplomat Tuesday that he was eager to repair relations between their two countries despite sharp differences over the escalating crisis in Iran.
Putin spoke alongside Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo in the Russian resort city of Sochi before the two headed in to closed-door meetings. Putin said he was reassured in a telephone call with President Trump that they can rebuild ties now that the special counsel probe into Russian election meddling had concluded.
“We’ve said many times that we also want to fully restore our relations,” Putin said, echoing Trump in calling ample evidence of Russian interference in 2016 “fake.”
“I hope that the necessary conditions for that to happen will now be created,” Putin said.
He seemed to ignore Pompeo’s earlier admonition that tampering was “unacceptable” and if repeated in 2020, U.S.-Russian relations would deteriorate to “an even worse place.”
Putin said that Trump, in the May 3 call, told him that the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III had cleared him. (In fact, Mueller reached no conclusion on obstruction of justice charges.) Trump has acknowledged that in the call, which lasted half an hour, he failed to mention the 2016 interference and did not warn Putin against repeating it.
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 Mueller report detailed extensive meddling by Russia in the 2016 presidential election aimed at benefiting Trump.
Pompeo’s mission also came as U.S. tensions with Iran — a close ally of Russia’s — intensified.
“We are looking for Iran to behave like a normal country,” Pompeo said in a joint news conference earlier Tuesday with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. While “we fundamentally do not seek war” with Iran, Pompeo said, the United States also stands ready “to respond in an appropriate fashion” if U.S. interests are attacked.
His statements followed several attacks in recent days on Saudi oil tankers and a pipeline, some of which the Saudis are blaming on Iranian proxies, and as the United States moves an aircraft carrier strike group and nuclear-capable B-52 bombers into the region.
In Washington, Trump denied a news report that he had ordered plans to deploy 120,000 troops to the Persian Gulf but said he’d be willing to make that or an even larger deployment if necessary. He did not elaborate.
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. Those differences were on display at the news conference.
In their comments to the media, Pompeo repeatedly noted the two sides had “disagreements,” while Lavrov called their talks “frank” and “meaningful.”
On Venezuela, Pompeo said he urged Russia to stand alongside Washington in support of opposition leader Juan Guaido. Lavrov responded tersely: “You can not establish a democracy by force.”
“We have lots of places where I hope we can find overlapping interests with Russia,” Pompeo said before arriving, including, he noted, resolving the conflict in Afghanistan, where both nations have been dragged into costly wars. “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 time the two had come together 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. The earlier session was during a conference of the Arctic Council in Finland.
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.”
President Trump has repeatedly said he wants to improve the U.S. relationship with Russia and has been obsequious toward Putin, even in the face of evidence that the Russian government is attempting to undermine Western democracies.
Trump’s administration, by contrast, has put tough sanctions on Russia for dealings with North Korea and Iran that appear to violate U.S. and international sanctions. Moscow has also been sanctioned by Western countries for its 2014 annexation of Crimea.
On Monday, Pompeo detoured from a scheduled direct flight to Russia and stopped in Brussels, where European foreign ministers were meeting. He hoped to persuade 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.
Special correspondent Ayres reported from Moscow and staff writer Wilkinson from Washington.
Ayres is a special correspondent.