SOCHI, Russia — The Kremlin on Tuesday slammed Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the highest-level US-Russian talks in nearly a year.
US President Donald Trump’s top diplomat, who arrived in the sunny Black Sea resort of Sochi late Tuesday, was to meet with Putin to see if Russia and Washington can make headway on a raft of disagreements from arms control to the raging Venezuela and Iran crises.
Pompeo’s visit to Russia — his first as secretary of state — came as tensions mounted dangerously in the Gulf, with Iran and the United States engaged in a new war of words over Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
Saudi Arabia has said four ships in the Gulf, including two of its oil tankers, suffered “sabotage” on Sunday, and on Tuesday it shut down a major oil pipeline after a drone attack on it by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Pompeo is the highest-ranking US official to see Putin since July when Trump met him in Helsinki and stunned the US political establishment by appearing to accept the Russian leader’s statement at face value that he did not meddle in the US election, contrary to US intelligence evaluations.
“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 tweeted.
Putin was expected to receive Pompeo later Tuesday after the latter held talks and a dinner with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.
“I am here today because President Trump is committed to improving this relationship,” Pompeo said as he met with Lavrov.
Lavrov told Pompeo that Moscow was ready to open a new page in ties.
“I believe it’s time to start building a new, more responsible and constructive model of mutual perception of each other… We are ready for this,” he said.
Ahead of the negotiations Putin was to tour a top military flight test center in southern Russia and inspect a new nuclear-capable hypersonic missile dubbed Kinzhal (Dagger).
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that the display of military muscle was designed to send a message to the Americans.
At a meeting Monday, Putin also tasked his top brass with developing defenses against hypersonic weapons.
Peskov slammed what he called Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran, saying it would only drive Tehran into a corner.
Pompeo cancelled a stop in Moscow Monday to instead have an unscheduled meeting in Brussels with European foreign ministers, who have been uncomfortable with the hawkish direction of the United States on Iran.
The United States has pulled out of a nuclear deal backed by the Europeans, Russia and China and 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 saying the deployment to the region of an aircraft carrier strike group and nuclear-capable bombers was to counter vaguely described threats from Iran.
The renewed diplomacy between Moscow and Washington follows a long-awaited report by investigator Robert Mueller. He found that Russia interfered in the 2016 election but that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow.
Besides Iran, Washington and Moscow are at loggerheads on an array of urgent strategic questions, including Venezuela, the Syrian civil war and the conflict in Ukraine.
The United States has been trying for more than three months to topple Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Pompeo has repeatedly blamed Russia for giving him a lifeline.
Both the United States and Russia hope to make some progress on arms control. Moscow is 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 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.
‘Regime slays dissidents’
Trump on Monday announced that he expected a “very fruitful meeting” with Putin at the G20 summit in Japan next month, only for Peskov to deny Washington had requested such a meeting.
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,” He 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.”
“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 neighbors,” Pompeo said.