Putin hopes for closer ties with US in wake of Mueller report

Russian president strikes optimistic note in first high-level talks with US secretary of state since end of collusion investigation

Vladimir Putin told the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, on Tuesday that he hoped the conclusion of Robert Mueller’s investigation would make possible a revitalisation of US-Russian relations.

The remarks came as the Russian president sat down with Pompeo for the first high-level talks between the two countries since the release of Mueller’s redacted report on his investigation into Russian collusion with the Trump 2016 presidential campaign.

In introductory remarks on Tuesday evening in Sochi, Putin said: “You have to give [Mueller] his due: overall, he conducted an objective investigation and confirmed the absence of any trace of a conspiracy between Russia and the current administration.

“This was among the reasons for the deterioration in relations between our two states. I hope that today the situation is changing.”

Pompeo met for several hours on Tuesday with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. While the two both expressed a desire to improve relations, the two sides remain divided over issues such as arms control and the crisis in Venezuela.

Russian officials said a possible summit between Trump and Putin at the G20 meeting next month in Osaka had been discussed. Putin would be open to a meeting, they said, but the US had not yet made a formal request.

Trump cancelled talks with Putin at the G20 in November following a Russian attack on several Ukrainian ships off the coast of Crimea.

Pompeo met Putin in Russia at a time of heightened fears of a clash between the US and Iran, a Moscow ally. A Kremlin spokesman, before the meeting on Tuesday, accused the US of applying a “maximum pressure policy” against Iran, a reference to a harsh US sanctions regime and military deployments to the Middle East.

“President Putin has said repeatedly that he could not understand the maximum pressure policy,” Peskov told journalists on Tuesday morning.

Tensions with Iran are the latest crisis troubling the US-Russia relationship, which was severely disrupted by accusations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections. Pompeo and Putin are expected to discuss issues from nuclear arms control to the recent unrest in Venezuela, where Russia backs the government of Nicolás Maduro and the US backs opposition leaders.

Pompeo arrived in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Tuesday afternoon, telling the Lavrov: “I am here today because President Trump is committed to improving this relationship.”

The US secretary of state’s visit on Tuesday is the first meeting between senior officials from the two countries.

The investigation was said to have constrained Trump’s desire to build closer relations with Putin, whom he openly praised during the campaign.

Before the meeting, Putin was set to visit a defence plant producing a new hypersonic missile and a flight test centre for Russia’s fifth-generation Su-57 jet fighters. The Kremlin spokesman called the timing of the visit a coincidence.

Lavrov called the talks an attempt to stabilise a bilateral relationship battered by the special counsel’s investigation and growing tensions in Venezuela and Iran, where Moscow backs leaders opposed by Washington.

In remarks on Monday, Lavrov blamed the US for provoking the crisis with Iran by exiting the nuclear deal negotiated under Barack Obama. Iran began a partial withdrawal from the nuclear deal last week.

“We will attempt to clarify with him how the Americans are planning to come out of the crisis they created with their unilateral decisions,” Lavrov said. “We count on a frank talk with my American counterpart.”

Before Tuesday’s meeting, he called on Pompeo to help reduce the “mutual bitterness” between the two sides, which “increases the risks for our and your security and is a cause for concern for the whole international community”.

The US has sent an aircraft carrier and a bomber taskforce to the Middle East in response to what officials called “a credible threat” by Iranian regime forces. Saudi Arabia said several of its oil tankers had been damaged in mysterious “sabotage attacks” after US warnings that Iran could target shipping in the region.

Pompeo has met leaders in Europe and the Middle East to discuss tensions with Iran in the last week. He cancelled plans to arrive in Moscow on Monday to meet US business leaders and embassy staff, instead travelling to Brussels to crash a summit of European diplomats, who have sought to salvage the nuclear deal and urged him to show maximum restraint towards Iran.

Jeremy Hunt, the UK foreign secretary, said America’s European allies were concerned about a potential war breaking out between Iran and the US. “We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident with an escalation that is unintended on either side,” Hunt said.

Mike Pompeo meets Jeremy Hunt at the European council in Brussels.
Mike Pompeo meets Jeremy Hunt at the European council in Brussels. Photograph: François Lenoir/AFP/Getty Images

Russian media have also reported that Pompeo would request a meeting between Trump and Putin at the G20 summit in June, although the Russian foreign ministry denied it had received any request.

Additional reporting by Sam Jones in Madrid


Andrew Roth in Moscow

The GuardianTramp

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