SOCHI, Russia (AFP) – Russia and the United States voiced hope Tuesday for better ties including working together in Syria as President Vladimir Putin welcomed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but tensions were laid bare in a clash over election meddling.
Speaking for nearly two hours late into the evening in Putin’s forested dacha in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Pompeo became the highest-ranking American to meet the Russian leader in 10 months.
“I would very much like your visit to Russia to benefit Russia-US relations and promote their development,” Putin told Pompeo as he took a seat across from him in a sleek conference room, saying that they should “fully restore” relations.
Pompeo — who like most of the US political class, with the major exception of President Donald Trump, has been outspoken in his criticism of Putin — said that the two countries found areas on which to cooperate, and voiced optimism in breaking a deadlock on Syria.
“We had a very productive conversation on pathways forward in Syria, things we can do together where we have a shared set of interests on how to move the political process forward,” Pompeo told reporters at the airport before flying out.
The United States and Russia are on opposite sides of Syria’s brutal eight-year civil war, with Russia the primary backer of President Bashar Assad.
Pompeo said that he and Putin agreed on ways to move ahead with a long-delayed Syrian-led committee that will rewrite the constitution in hopes of a political end to the conflict.
The top US diplomat also said that the United States and Russia largely saw eye-to-eye on Afghanistan, where Trump wants to pull troops, and North Korea amid Trump’s diplomatic drive for a nuclear accord.
Disagreement on election meddling
Hanging over Trump’s quest for warm ties with Russia have been persistent allegations that his campaign worked with the rival power to swing the 2016 election to the mogul over his rival Hillary Clinton.
Putin hailed the two-year investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller that did not find collusion by the Trump campaign — but documented extensive meddling by Russia, especially by manipulating social media.
“Despite the exotic nature of Mr Mueller’s commission, on the whole he conducted quite an objective investigation and confirmed the absence of any collusion between the US administration and Russia,” Putin said.
Pompeo, speaking earlier at a joint news conference with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, acknowledged deep differences on election meddling — and warned Russia to stay out of next year’s vote.
“Interference in American elections is unacceptable. If Russia engaged in that in 2020, it would put our relationship in an even worse place than it has been,” Pompeo said.
“I conveyed that there are things that Russia can do to demonstrate that these kinds of activities are a thing of the past. I hope that Russia takes advantage of those opportunities,” he said.
Lavrov hit back against “those who are inflating this topic” and saying of collusion: “It’s clear that such insinuations are absolute fiction.”
“We want and we are ready to deal with cyber-security issues along with our American partners, without any politicization,” he said.
Pompeo — who just three days earlier in a speech said that “the Putin regime slays dissidents in cold blood” — said he was not trying to reconcile but rather to find common interests.
“It’s not about ‘moving on.’ It’s about trying to find solutions, compromises, places where there are overlapping interests,” he told reporters.
Pompeo was the highest-ranking American to see Putin since July when the Russian leader met in Helsinki with Trump — who shocked the US establishment by seeming to take at face value Putin’s denials of election interference.
Putin and Pompeo also discussed the crises on Iran and Venezuela. But Putin’s aide Yuri Ushakov said they did not touch on Ukraine, where Russia’s backing of separatist rebels have prompted US sanctions.
Pompeo has led US charges that Russia is to blame for the continued rule of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, a leftist firebrand whom Washington is seeking to oust.
“The time has come for Nicolas Maduro to go, he has brought nothing but misery to the Venezuelan people, and we hope that Russian support for Maduro will end,” Pompeo said at his joint news conference with Lavrov.
Most Latin American and European nations recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president of Venezuela, whose crumbling economy has prompted millions to flee.
Lavrov mockingly said that the United States had also promoted democracy in war-torn Iraq and Libya and called for dialogue with Maduro — an option rejected by Washington.