Mon, 20 May 2019

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday meets US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the highest-level talks between the rival powers in nearly a year as they see if they can make headway on a raft of disagreements from Venezuela to Iran to arms control.

Pompeo will visit Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi less than two weeks after US President Donald Trump voiced optimism about improving relations with Moscow during a more than one-hour telephone conversation with the Russian leader.

The new diplomatic push followed the long-awaited report in the United States by investigator Robert Mueller which found that Russia interfered in the 2016 election but that the Trump campaign did not collude with Moscow, partially lifting a cloud that had hung over the mogul-turned-president for two years.

Putin is expected to receive Pompeo on Tuesday evening after the US secretary of state holds talks with Moscow's top diplomat Sergei Lavrov.

"My meetings in Russia will highlight a number of important topics," Pompeo tweeted on Tuesday.

"On some issues we may agree, on others we may disagree, but when it's in our national interests, it is our responsibility to find a way forward."

Pompeo is the highest-ranking US official to see Putin since July when Trump met him in Helsinki and stunned the US political class by appearing to accept the Russian leader's statement at face value that he did not meddle in the US election.

Despite Trump's conciliatory attitude toward Putin, Washington and Moscow are at loggerheads on an array of urgent strategic questions, including the Venezuelan crisis, Iran, the Syrian civil war and the conflict in Ukraine.

'Hypersonic weapons'

Hours before he meets Pompeo, Putin is expected to visit a top military flight test centre and inspect new weaponry on Tuesday.

At a meeting on Monday evening, Putin stressed that Russia was developing hypersonic weapons and tasked his top brass with also developing defences against such weapons.

"We understand full well that leading countries of the world will sooner or later get such weapons," Putin said.

"This means that we should get hold of defences against such types of weapons before" Western countries put such weapons into combat service.

Both the United States and Russia hope to make some progress on arms control, with Moscow 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 earlier 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.

The Venezuela crisis is expected to be another key point of contention.

The United States has been trying for more than three months to topple Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, a leftist firebrand whose re-election was widely criticised for irregularities, and Pompeo has repeatedly blamed Russia for giving him a lifeline.

Trump has, however, contradicted Pompeo, saying the Russian president assured him that Moscow is not involved in Venezuela.

'Regime slays dissidents'

The US president's enthusiasm for courting Putin has little support in Washington, even within his own administration, which 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 on where he stood in remarks Saturday in California.

Addressing the conservative Claremont Institute, Pompeo said that US policymakers in recent decades had "drifted from realism" and chastised them for believing that "enfolding the likes of China and Russia into a so-called rules-based international order would hasten their domestic evolution towards democracy."

"But 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.

Pompeo cancelled a stop in Moscow scheduled for Monday to meet with European foreign ministers in Brussels, who have been uncomfortable with the hawkish direction of the United States, especially on Iran.

The United States has pulled out of a nuclear deal backed by the Europeans, Russia and China and instead has slapped sweeping sanctions on Iran in an all-out effort to curb Tehran's regional clout.

The United States has recently ramped up the pressure by deploying to the region an aircraft carrier strike group and nuclear-capable bombers, warning vaguely of imminent threats from Iran, which UN inspectors say is complying with the 2015 accord.

Russia's Lavrov said he would have a "frank conversation" with Pompeo on Iran.

"We will try to clarify with Pompeo how the Americans plan to get out of this crisis, which was created by their unilateral decisions," Lavrov told reporters as he met his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Sochi on Monday.

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