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Pompeo arrived as Russia and the United States have been clashing over a Venezuela and amid a spike in tensions with Iran, with fears of a possible military confrontation between the U.S. and Tehran growing.
But the trip comes the Kremlin and the White House have signaled they want to improve relations, and just as President Donald Trump said he will meet with Putin at a G20 summit in Japan next month.
Pompeo first met with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in Sochi. Both men struck an upbeat tone speaking in front of cameras at the start of their talks.
Pompeo told Lavrov the Trump administration is “committed to improving this relationship” and that the two countries were “not destined to be adversaries on every issue.”
“We understand that on both sides more than a little suspicion and prejudice has built up. But neither you, nor us gains anything from this,” Lavrov told Pompeo.
The trip was confirmed after Pompeo met with Lavrov last week in Finland’s capital Helsinki and the U.S. officials have said they hope Pompeo and Putin will address a broad range of issues, from Venezuela, Iran and Ukraine, to the arms control and efforts to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
Russian officials have indicated they hope there may now be an opening to improve relations with the end of the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Putin and Trump spoke at length on the phone on May 3, in a conversation both sides described as very positive. Trump said the two discussed what he called the “Russian hoax.”
In Sochi, Lavrov told Pompeo that the fact they were meeting a second time in two weeks gave ground for a “certain optimism.”
“Let’s try, and see what happens,” Lavrov said.
While Pompeo said he was sure there would be areas where they couldn’t find common ground, he praised what he said was successful cooperation in counter-terrorism and that he believed understanding could be found on issues such as arms control.
Russian officials will be further encouraged by Trump’s announcement Tuesday that he intends to meet with Putin at the G20 summit in Osako in late June. Trump cancelled a planned full meeting with Putin at a previous G20 in Argentina last fall, saying he wouldn’t meet with the Russian leader until he released 24 Ukrainian sailors seized by Russia last year, though the two still held a brief conversation at the summit. The sailors remain on trial in Russia but Trump made no mention of them on Tuesday.
The mounting tensions with Iran, however, loom large over the trip. Pompeo cancelled a planned visit to Moscow on Monday, where he had been due to meet embassy staff and business leaders, instead diverting to Brussels, where he met with European leaders to discuss Iran and reassure them over an American decision to deploy additional forces to the region.
Venezuela will also likely dominate Pompeo’s meeting with Putin. Russia backs Nicolas Maduro as Venezuela’s president, rejecting calls for him to step down by opposition leader Juan Guaido, who the U.S. and many other countries support.
Moscow has long backed Maduro by propping up Venezuela’s economy with loans and providing him with military equipment. The clash between the U.S. and Russia over Venezuela has intensified in recent weeks, with Pompeo last month directly accusing Russia of blocking a deal that would have seen Maduro leave the country.
Russia has accused the U.S. of seeking illegal regime change. After their meeting in Finland, Lavrov warned Pompeo that American military intervention in Venezuela would have catastrophic consequences.
Some observers believe the Kremlin sees in the dispute over Venezuela a chance to strike a bargain.
“Moscow concluded then it found an issue it could use to force the U.S. to grant concession elsewhere, most notably in Ukraine,” Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat wrote in an article for The Moscow Times last week.
After their call last week, Trump contradicted his own top advisers, including Pompeo, by saying he believed “Putin is not looking at all to get involved” in Venezuela other than “he’d like to see something positive happen.”
Frolov wrote the Kremlin could be ready to cooperate with the U.S. over Venezuela in return for a return to a Cold War-style understanding of “spheres of influence” that would see the U.S. make concessions in Ukraine. Russia wants the U.S. to pressure Ukraine’s government to fulfill parts of a peace plan there that would see it grant pro-Russian regions greater autonomy within the country.
“Moscow is ready to sell its stake in Maduro, but it is still unclear whether Washington is ready to offer the right price,” Frolov wrote.