Pompeo pops over to see Putin

2019-05-13 06:22:58 GMT2019-05-13 14:22:58(Beijing Time) Sina English

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is heading to Russia with an unusual and thankless task - standing firm against the rival power even as his boss, President Donald Trump, reaches out to reconcile.

Pompeo will meet Tuesday with Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, in the highest-level US engagement with the Russian leader since a July summit in Helsinki after which Trump faced wide scorn at home for his trustful embrace of the Russian leader. 

The top US diplomat's trip comes less than two months after Special Counsel Robert Mueller wound up an investigation that found that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election - but that the Trump campaign did not collude with Moscow.

After spending the first two years of his presidency under the cloud of Mueller's probe, Trump chatted for more than an hour by telephone with ­Putin on May 3, in what he hailed as a "very positive" conversation.

Trump said that Putin had assured him that Russia was not involved in Venezuela - directly contradicting Pompeo and other top officials who for weeks have demanded that Moscow stop backing leftist leader Nicolas Maduro, whom Washington is trying to topple.

Venezuela is only one of a slew of issues where the US and Russia have clashed.

Others include the Syrian war, arms control commitments and the conflict in Ukraine, where Western powers have been attempting for five years to little avail to end Moscow's support for armed separatists.

Jonathan Katz, a former US official focused on Central and Eastern Europe, believed that Russia was looking to see if the end of Mueller's probe would allow a new beginning with Trump, whom Putin supported over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

"I think this is Moscow testing whether there is a new modus operandi in Washington, [after] the release of the Mueller report," said Katz, now a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Despite heading the US government, Trump is a major outlier in Washington, with virtually all senior administration officials including Pompeo and lawmakers across party lines advocating a harder stance on Russia, including sanctions over election interference and its 2014 takeover of Crimea from Ukraine.

For Pompeo, "it's incredibly difficult because the interlocutors on the other side don't know who speaks for the ­United States," Katz said.

A State Department official said Pompeo, who will also meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for the second time in as many weeks, would push for progress in particular in one area - arms control. 

Despite deep rifts on many hot spots, the official said that Russia and the US, if not seeing eye-to-eye, had developed "constructive" relationships on Afghanistan and North Korea.


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