With the special counsel investigation of Russian election interference now complete, the Trump administration cautiously offered a fresh start with Russia on Tuesday as the two countries find their interests colliding on a range of international issues.
President Trump dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, bearing a message that the United States is ready to renew discussions on a lengthy list of topics, including arms control, Iran and Venezuela.
Pompeo, greeting Putin at the Russian leader’s vacation home in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, spoke of “truly overlapping interests that we can build on.”
“We can work together to make each of our people more successful and, frankly, the world more successful, too,” Pompeo said. “And so President Trump wants to do everything we can, and he asked me to travel here to communicate that.”
The same disagreements that have soured U.S.-Russian relations for more than two years remain, including over whether Moscow interfered in the 2016 election and Russian anger over retaliatory U.S. sanctions. U.S. intelligence agencies assess that Russia engaged in a widespread effort to undermine the election and harm Trump’s opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton.
But the Trump administration and Putin’s government appear eager to use the closure of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation and the presentation of his report last month as a pivot point.
The issue of Russian interference has hung over Trump’s entire presidency, clouding his efforts to deal with Moscow.
Questions about ongoing Russian influence were fueled by Trump’s resistance to the findings of his own intelligence agencies and his deference to Putin. In their first phone call in months, on May 3, Trump chose not to confront Putin over the election interference or warn him not to do it again.
“On our behalf, we have said it multiple times that we also would like to rebuild fully fledged relations, and I hope that right now the conducive environment is being built for that,” Putin said through an interpreter as he greeted Pompeo. “For all of special counsel Mueller’s exotic work, he carried out an impartial investigation and confirmed the lack of any trace and any collusion between Russia and the acting administration — which we from the very beginning characterized as utter nonsense.”
Putin added: “This was one of the reasons for the worsening of our interstate ties. I hope that today, the situation is changing.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the entire question of Russian interference during a news conference with Pompeo, who then delivered the warning Trump had not.
“You can see we have some disagreements on this issue,” Pompeo told reporters. “I made clear to Foreign Minister Lavrov, as we’ve made clear in the past months, that interference in American elections is unacceptable. If the Russians were to engage in that in 2020 it would put our relationship in an even worse place than it has been, and we encourage them not to do that. We would not tolerate that.”
Trump has frequently said that he wants better relations with Russia, a key player in nearly every major global challenge facing the United States. Trump’s White House has labeled Russia a strategic competitor, while saying that the two nations should work together where possible.
“Getting along with Russia and China, getting along with all of them, is very good thing, not a bad thing,” Trump said after the phone call with Putin. “It’s a good thing. It’s a positive thing.”
The Kremlin has accused what it calls Washington’s anti-Russian establishment of blocking Trump’s efforts at closer ties.
The Mueller investigation was the prime culprit in that narrative, weaving a web of suspicion around Trump and Putin to prevent the two from working together.
Russian commentators took to predicting that a key prerequisite for U.S.-Russian ties to improve was for the Mueller investigation to end.
Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the foreign relations committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament, said in March that the end of the Mueller investigation offered “a chance to reset much in our relationship, but the question is whether Trump will risk it.”
Mueller documented that Russian officials and business executives offered assistance to Trump and the people around him in 2016, but the special counsel did not find that any of the contacts between Trump associates and Russians constituted a crime.
Mueller said his “investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
Trump on Tuesday referred to the investigation as “a hoax.”
Pompeo’s full day of discussions with Putin and Lavrov was a run-up to a proposed face-to-face meeting between Trump and Putin next month in Japan. It would be their first since the Trump administration put high-level contacts on hold last fall in protest of Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian ships and sailors.
Trump canceled a formal meeting with Putin on the sidelines of an international economic summit in Argentina in late November over that Russian action, although the two had what the White House described as an “informal” conversation.
Russia has sought a formal meeting ever since, and Trump said Monday that it would take place. Russia has not released the ships or sailors, as Pompeo noted Tuesday.
With global tensions rising over Iran — a Russian ally — Lavrov said Russia was prepared to do what it could to avoid “a war scenario.” The United States has warned of an increasing threat from Iran and has dispatched additional forces to the region.
“We fundamentally do not seek war with Iran,” Pompeo said. “We have also made clear to the Iranians that if American interests are attacked, we will most certainly respond in the appropriate fashion.”
On Venezuela, Lavrov and Pompeo showed no sign of budging from opposing sides in that country’s crisis. But Pompeo also named regions where he saw potential for the United States and Russia to work together more closely.
“Some of our cooperation has been excellent, on North Korea, on Afghanistan,” Pompeo told Putin. “We’ve done good work, counterterrorism work together. These are things we can build upon.”
U.S. officials also consider Syria to be a rare bright spot, with Washington and Moscow keeping communication open despite backing opposing sides in the eight-year civil war.
A key test for Russia and the United States’ ability to cooperate will revolve around nuclear arms control. Pompeo said at the news conference that Trump remains interested in bringing other countries, including China, into an arms-control framework — an idea that has drawn skepticism in Moscow. In a striking bit of counterprogramming, Putin examined a new hypersonic, nuclear-capable missile system at a southern Russian defense plant before his meeting with Pompeo. The Kremlin insisted that the visit was coincidental.
The United States this year backed out of a Cold War-era treaty with Russia limiting short- and medium-range ground-based missiles, citing Russian violations.
Russian officials, meanwhile, have said they are eager to extend the New START accord governing U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons, which expires in 2021. Pompeo was noncommittal after his talks with Lavrov when asked whether the United States was prepared to extend the treaty.
“Very much on President Trump’s mind is arms control,” Pompeo said. “The president has charged his national security team to think more broadly about arms control.”
Trump instructed his top diplomat to conclude an arms-control agreement with Putin that includes a “broader range of countries” and accounts for a “broader range of weapon systems than our current bilateral treaties with Russia,” said a senior State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. goals for the trip.
The Trump administration wants a trilateral arms-control agreement involving the United States, China and Russia that regulates the stockpiles of smaller nuclear weapons, often referred to as “tactical nuclear weapons.” Those fall outside the parameters of the New START accord, the last remaining big arms-control pact between the United States and Russia.
There are also questions about whether New START’s provisions might cover other Russian weaponry under development, including a nuclear torpedo that Putin has touted as impervious to American defenses.
The discussions have barely gotten off the ground, U.S. officials said, and Pompeo has acknowledged how difficult it would be to include China in such an agreement.
After his meeting with Putin, Pompeo sought to portray the talks as constructive while also noting that disagreements remain between the two countries.
“So it’s not about moving on — it’s about trying to find solutions, compromises, places where there are overlapping interests,” Pompeo said. “You can make progress in unlocking some of the most difficult problems that are facing us. And so you try to keep the process on the high ground, you try to keep the relationships on the high ground.”
Troianovski reported from Sochi. John Hudson and Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.