SOCHI, RUSSIA – Russian leader Vladimir Putin said he’s committed to improving ties with the U.S. now that special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe showed a “demonstrated absence of any kind of traces, of any kind of collusion” between Moscow and President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
“My impression is that the president is set to restore Russian-American relations, contacts, to jointly resolve issues that are of mutual interest to us,” Putin told Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in front of reporters before a private meeting Tuesday. “For our part, we have repeatedly said that we would also like to restore full-format relations.”
Meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Pompeo and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov earlier pledged to seek better relations and ease tensions, even as they diverged sharply on issues from Iran and Venezuela to U.S. findings of Kremlin meddling in U.S. elections.
After meeting with Lavrov, Pompeo said the U.S. “fundamentally doesn’t want war with Iran,” as Lavrov warned of the risk of being pulled into a spiral of crisis over the Islamic Republic. Pompeo said he warned Russia against meddling in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections, while Lavrov rejected accusations of interference as “complete fiction.”
“We agreed on the importance of restoring channels of communications that had recently been frozen,” Lavrov said at their joint news conference. “I hope that after the publication of the report of special counsel Robert Mueller, passions on the other side of the ocean will subside and it will be possible finally to move forward toward more constructive interaction.”
In fact, Mueller reported that his investigation didn’t establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government “despite multiple efforts by Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.”
Pompeo and Lavrov discussed a possible meeting between Trump and Putin at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka next month, after the U.S. president said Monday that he would see the Kremlin leader. Putin is willing to meet Trump, but there’s been no official invitation so far, Lavrov said.
The two sides described the talks as “frank,” saying that they wanted to improve relations strained for years over the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine and more recently over strategic arms control and U.S. efforts to oust Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro. Pompeo, on his first visit to Russia as the top U.S. diplomat, said the Trump administration is committed to improving ties and wants to work together where the two countries have what he called “overlapping interests.”
“I’m here today because President Trump is committed to improving this relationship,” he told Lavrov at the start of their meeting. “It’s not destined that we’re adversaries on every issue.”
Pompeo said he and Lavrov discussed North Korea’s nuclear program. Lavrov said they agreed to engage on other arms-control issues, including on a possible extension of the U.S.-Russia New Start nuclear treaty that’s due to expire in 2021. Lavrov also said there may be hope for some agreement on Iran that would win backing by both Russia and the U.S., after Trump pulled out of the international accord on Tehran’s nuclear program.
They offered few details, however, about the areas where they could improve relations, in contrast to the variety of differences they outlined.
There’s “no pivot in sight, no breakthrough in the offing,” Dmitri Trenin, Moscow Carnegie Center director, wrote on Twitter before the news conference. “Contacts will continue, but normalization will be long in coming.”
Before meeting Pompeo, Putin flew to a flight-test airbase in the southern Astrakhan region escorted by six of Russia’s latest Su-57 stealth fighter jets to inspect new hypersonic weapons he’s touted as invulnerable to U.S. defenses. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was a scheduled inspection visit and dismissed as “conspiracy theories” suggestions that it was a signal to Washington, the state-run Tass news service reported.
Trump stunned Russian officials in November by scrapping a meeting with Putin at last year’s G20 summit in Argentina with a Twitter announcement the day before the talks, blaming tensions over Russia’s capture of Ukrainian sailors. That followed the cancellation of talks planned for Paris during Nov. 11 commemorations for the centenary of the end of World War I.
It’s not clear what’s changed since then. At the time, Trump cited Russia’s failure to release Ukrainian ships and sailors seized during clashes in the Kerch Strait near Crimea as the reason for his refusal to meet Putin. The sailors remain in detention as Russia continues plans to prosecute them, said Nikolai Polozov, who’s leading their defense team.
Putin, however, cited special counsel Mueller’s “objective” investigation as finally being behind both the U.S. and Russia. And he reiterated past rejections of any Russian involvement in the 2016 election, in the face of the conclusion to the contrary reached by Mueller, the U.S. intelligence community and congressional probes.
“From the beginning we characterized this as complete nonsense,” Putin said. “There was no state meddling on our part in the U.S. election.”