U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo leaves for Moscow on Sunday, with President Donald Trump again calling for improved ties now that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has finished his investigation.
Pompeo will meet U.S. diplomats at the American Embassy in Moscow on Monday before continuing to Sochi for talks with President Vladimir Putin and other senior officials. The secretary has 48 hours — the entire length of the trip — to cram in discussions of disputes between the two nations, involving Ukraine, Venezuela and Syria and other issues, along with continued accusations of election interference.
With the Mueller inquiry wrapped up, Trump has returned to signaling his interest in improving U.S.-Russia ties, speaking with Putin for more than an hour last week and tweeting that there is “tremendous potential for a good/great relationship with Russia.” The two leaders had kept their distance as Mueller’s probe into the 2016 U.S. election and allegations of collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia heated up.
“Clearly since the Mueller report came out, Trump is feeling unconstrained about what he’s wanted all along — a new relationship with Moscow where all the bad issues get swept aside and the two leaders ‘get down to business,”’ said Andrew Weiss, the former director for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian Affairs on the National Security Council who’s now a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“What that means in practice is really fuzzy because the agenda largely consists of issues where the U.S. and Russia are at loggerheads,” Weiss said.
Trump spoke with Putin briefly on the sidelines of a Group of 20 meeting in Argentina in December. That meeting rekindled criticism of their summit last July in Helsinki, where the American president appeared to take Putin’s side over the conclusions of his own intelligence agencies when asked about evidence Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
Pompeo could use his trip to start laying the groundwork for a meeting between Trump and Putin on the sidelines of a Group of 20 forum in Japan set for late June. Such an encounter would still be fraught, especially since Trump has appeared reluctant to confront Putin on the meddling accusations, which the Mueller report reaffirmed.
“The Mueller report confirmed accusations of Russian meddling,” said Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a Kremlin-founded think tank. “The report to some extent rehabilitates Trump but doesn’t rehabilitate Moscow at all. For Russia, nothing has really changed.”
A senior State Department official, speaking to reporters on Friday, said Pompeo would raise a range of topics, including continuing concerns about Russian election meddling, Moscow’s role in propping up Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and the American desire for more sweeping arms control agreements that include countries like China, not just Russia and the U.S.
The official argued that U.S. policy is to seek a better relationship with Moscow while also acknowledging that Russia has been responsible for several acts of aggression on the world stage.
One challenge, as it’s been throughout Trump’s presidency, is that while he may want better ties with Russia, relations between the two countries have seldom been worse and show little prospect of improving.
Besides contesting support for Maduro, there is the issue of the U.S. withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in February. The administration is also angry at Russia over its detention of 24 Ukrainian sailors in the Sea of Azov last November and the poisoning of a former spy in the U.K. last year. In addition, American businessman Michael Calvey remains under house arrest in Moscow over allegations of fraud, a charge he rejects.
The president’s latest tweet on Russia also highlighted the dissonant tone the Trump administration has struck toward the country. While Pompeo blamed Russia for Maduro’s refusal to leave power despite pressure from the U.S., Trump said after his call with Putin that the Russian leader wasn’t looking to “get involved” in the crisis in Venezuela.
Trump’s calls will find a receptive audience. After the Mueller report came out, Russian lawmaker Konstantin Kosachyov urged the president to “take the risk” and seize the opportunity to reset relations.
“Putin has always bet personally on Trump, with whom he has a way of bonding to the point of manipulation,” said Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat and foreign policy analyst in Moscow. “Putin knows Trump likes him, while his administration does not. In Trump he trusts.”