Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is trying to reach an understanding with Moscow before a deadline for imposing sweeping new sanctions against Russia for allegedly poisoning a former Russian spy in Britain, said diplomats familiar with the efforts.
The outreach reflects a desire by President Trump to open up a constructive dialogue with Moscow and break the cycle of tit-for-tat sanctions that the Kremlin has decried as ruinous to bilateral relations.
The prospect for rapprochement between the two adversaries remains slim as U.S. lawmakers demand strict enforcement of existing sanctions laws and deliberate a new package of even more punitive measures against Russia, limiting the Trump administration’s maneuverability.
Pompeo’s effort to find a way forward with Russia is supported by major European allies with economic ties to the United States and Russia, such as Germany and Italy, but has rattled some post-Soviet bloc countries wary of engagement with Moscow.
Under a 1991 law on the use of chemical weapons, the Trump administration is required to punish Russia if it doesn’t take steps to account for the March attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter involving the nerve agent Novichok in Salisbury, England.
The first round of U.S. sanctions for the poisonings came into effect on Monday with a ban on the export of security-sensitive goods and technology.
The second round of more punishing sanctions, which are required to come into effect by November, could include banning flights to the United States by Russian airlines, downgrading or suspending diplomatic relations, and prohibiting U.S. bank loans to the Russian government.
Moscow denies responsibility for the poisoning and has vowed to retaliate against the sanctions by imposing its own.
To find a way forward on the sanctions dispute, Pompeo asked Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in an Aug. 10 phone call to meet before the United States takes action, said U.S. and European diplomats. Pompeo underscored that he was asking for the meeting at the direction of the president of the United States. The diplomats spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the sensitive diplomatic discussions.
Lavrov agreed to meet Pompeo and requested that the two sides also discuss three other topics of interest to Moscow: arms control; the establishment of a business council to promote trade between the two countries; and an exchange of Russian and American scholars and think-tank fellows. Those initiatives have been longtime goals of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The two men agreed, and said they would decide on a date after a meeting between national security adviser John Bolton and his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, in Geneva last week.
A diplomat familiar with the planning said it was unclear if the Pompeo-Lavrov meeting would happen in Washington or in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in late September. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Tuesday that it was “quite probable” the two would meet at the U.N. event, according to Russian news agencies.
In a statement to The Washington Post, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, “The secretary proposed a meeting to address issues that are important to our bilateral relationship.” She stressed that no “off ramp” was discussed related to the pending Skripal sanctions.
Other U.S. officials, including Bolton, have also said the sanctions will remain in force until Russia changes its behavior.
But Trump has hinted that a deal with Moscow on sanctions relief could be possible if the Kremlin offers the U.S. concessions on Syria or Ukraine.
“I would consider it if they do something that would be good for us. But I wouldn’t consider it without that,” Trump told Reuters last week.
At the moment, the Trump administration is squeezed between the president’s desire to foster a better relationship with Russia and a push in Congress to pile on additional sanctions in the hopes of deterring future Russian interference in the 2018 midterm elections.
The clashing of agendas has confused and irritated the Kremlin, analysts say.
“The Trump administration currently has a two-sided Russia policy: imposing even more punitive sanctions on Moscow at the direction of Congress and then reaching out for dialogue at the direction of President Trump,” said Angela Stent, a Russia expert and former official in the George W. Bush administration.
“The Russians look at this and think everything is unpredictable. And they think that since Helsinki, they can’t rely on things improving because the sanctions keep coming,” she said, referring to Trump’s summit with Putin last month.
On Monday, the Russian Embassy in Washington condemned the new Skripal sanctions and U.S. politicians for their “unhealthy craving for demolishing the fundamental basis of bilateral relations, on which rests the global security.”
“Decisions are made with zero attempts to look into things, while ignoring our calls for dialogue, in absence of any real proof of ‘Russia’s guilt,’” the embassy said in a statement.
How Pompeo might come to terms with Lavrov over the sanctions decision remains unclear.
Under the law, the United States is required to impose new sanctions on Russia unless the president can certify in less than 90 days that Russia is no longer using chemical weapons, has provided assurances that it won’t engage in such activities in the future and will allow on-site inspections by international observers to ensure that it is not engaging in such activities.
Russia is unlikely to comply with all three items given that it denies the very basis of Washington’s allegations. “Neither the United States nor the United Kingdom nor any other country has such a single shred of evidence to support such assertions since the Salisbury incident,” the Russian foreign ministry said immediately after Pompeo's call with Lavrov.
A diplomat familiar with the call said Lavrov repeatedly told Pompeo that the United States had been misled by Britain about the perpetrators of the attack and risked looking foolish.
If Russia refuses to account for the Skripal poisoning by November, the law requires the president to select three sanctions measures from a list of six spelled out in the bill.
Some of the moves the Trump administration could take against Russia are fairly benign, said Newell Highsmith, a former legal adviser at the State Department on nonproliferation issues. “The administration could just pick a few exports or imports to restrict,” he said.
But other options, such as suspending the Russian airline Aeroflot’s ability to fly to the United States, could prompt a strong reaction. Russia could halt export of RD-180 rocket engines, which the United States uses to launch government satellites. Moscow could also retaliate by charging U.S. airlines more to cross Russian airspace en route to Asia.
Trump could also waive the sanctions altogether, but he would need to certify that doing so is essential to U.S. national security and notify Congress 15 days before the waiver takes effect.
Diplomats said the wide discretion the Trump administration has in choosing the severity of the sanctions gives Pompeo room to negotiate, but he will eventually have to answer to Congress.
“If the Russians concede nothing in these discussions, the Hill is going to clamor for a tough second round of sanctions,” said a GOP Senate aide.
Anton Troianovski in Moscow contributed to this report.