U.S.-Russia Talks Expose Deep Fissures, Despite Hopes for Better Ties

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MOSCOW — Russia and the United States remain far apart on Iran, Venezuela, Ukraine, North Korea and election interference, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, made clear Tuesday at a news conference ahead of a meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin.

In the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, both Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Pompeo described their discussion as “frank,” often diplomat-speak to describe disagreements verging on testy, and they bemoaned the state of affairs between the two nations. “It is clear that our relations have seen better times,” Mr. Lavrov said.

Mr. Pompeo had some particularly sharp words on Russia’s election meddling, telling his counterpart that “interference in American elections is unacceptable, and if the Russians were engaged in that in 2020 it would put our relationship in an even worse place than it has been.”

Much of the world’s attention is riveted currently on the Persian Gulf region, where the Trump administration is pressuring Iran with harsh economic sanctions and military deployments, and where mysterious attacks have been reported this week on the oil tankers and a pipeline of Iran’s great rival, Saudi Arabia, raising fears of a coming violent conflict.

But at least publicly, Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Pompeo gave the impression that Iran was not at the top of their agenda, and most of their remarks on it dealt with the 2015 nuclear deal that the United States has withdrawn from but that Russia and other powers still support.

“We’re looking for Iran to behave like a normal country,” Mr. Pompeo said, one that does not sponsor terrorism and assassinations and develop offensive weapons. “We fundamentally do not seek a war with Iran.”

Mr. Pompeo, making his first visit to Russia as secretary of state, addressed this week’s events near the Persian Gulf only briefly, and in response to a direct question from a reporter.

“I don’t have any information that I can share with you yet about the nature of what took place there,” he said. “We’re working diligently to get answers to what caused those ships to have the problems that they have today.”

Mr. Lavrov indignantly denied, once again, that Russia had meddled in the 2016 American election and said he hoped the issue was fading into “the past.”

More than that, he added, he expected the publication of the report by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, to clear the way for Russian-American cooperation. “Passions will subside,” he said.

Mr. Pompeo said he was seeking to fulfill President Trump’s intention to improve Russian-American ties. The diplomats spoke at some length about disputes that have been on a slow boil in recent months, on which they have found themselves on opposite sides, including Iran and the crisis in Venezuela.

The two also raised the possibility of opening negotiations on extending the only remaining nuclear treaty between Moscow and Washington, called New Start, which limits the number of intercontinental missiles, warheads and heavy bombers each can have. The Trump administration’s suspension of an intermediate-range missile treaty, and Mr. Putin’s withdrawal in response, had called into doubt the prospects for extending New Start, which is set to expire in 2021.

The West tends to blame tensions with Russia on Moscow’s attempts to destabilize its rivals, undermine democracies and alliances and expand its influence. Mr. Lavrov had a simpler explanation for the poor state of relations with Washington: the “anti-Russian sentiment” of the Obama administration, though things have not noticeably improved in more than two years under President Trump.

“There is a potential for mutually beneficial better cooperation, and that remains untapped,” he said.

There had been speculation that the two sides could announce another summit meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin, but the officials said that nothing had been decided.



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