Pompeo faces myriad challenges in Putin meeting

Pompeo faces myriad challenges in Putin meeting
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Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump calls on foreign countries to protect their own oil tankers Trump to travel to South Korea The Hill's Morning Report - Crunch time arrives for 2020 Dems with debates on deck MORE faces a complex set of challenges as he approaches his high-stakes meeting with Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinTrump on addressing election interference with Putin: 'I may' Beware the Bolton path to US military strikes on Iran House Intelligence Committee to subpoena Trump associate Felix Sater MORE this week.

Pompeo is set to depart Sunday for his first trip to Russia as President TrumpDonald John TrumpConway defends herself against Hatch Act allegations amid threat of subpoena How to defuse Gulf tensions and avoid war with Iran Trump says 'stubborn child' Fed 'blew it' by not cutting rates MORE's chief diplomat, a visit that represents the Trump administration's latest effort to find areas of cooperation with Moscow despite several key disagreements.

The secretary is scheduled to meet with officials at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow on Sunday before traveling to the Black Sea resort of Sochi to meet with Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Tuesday.

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A number of thorny bilateral and global issues are likely to surface during the meeting, including arms control, the political upheaval in Venezuela and Russia's efforts to interfere in foreign elections, an area of continued concern for many back in Washington.

State Department officials said Friday that Pompeo plans to confront Putin on Russian efforts to meddle in U.S. and other elections, something Trump declined to do during a lengthy phone call with Putin earlier this month. The pair are also likely to address other pressing issues, including over Iran and North Korea.

“The secretary will have a very candid conversation about concerns in our bilateral relationship,” a senior State Department official said ahead of the trip.

“We’ve been clear all along that part of our Russia policy is it is in our interest to have a better relationship with Russia,” the official said. “The President has been clear, the Secretary has been clear on that. And so where we have concerns, we’re going to raise them directly, narrow those differences, and find areas where we can cooperate to protect and advance our interests.”

Among the issues high on Pompeo's agenda for his meeting with Putin is arms control, an area that experts say the Trump administration might be able to make some headway.

“There are a million other issues where we aren’t going to agree with them,” said Evelyn Farkas, a former Pentagon official in the Obama administration who worked on Russia issues. "On the arms control, maybe there’s a possibility."

The Trump administration announced in February that it would withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a decades-old arms control pact that Washington has accused Moscow of repeatedly violating since 2014. The U.S. has also signaled a desire to expand arms control pacts to include other countries, like China.

While the administration said earlier this year that it would leave the INF Treaty and suspend its obligations, it takes six months to fully withdraw – meaning it will not happen until August.

Russia has repeatedly and fervently denied violating the treaty by fielding a new cruise missile, making any efforts to salvage the treaty seem improbable.

However, it’s likely that a separate arms control agreement with Russia, known as the New START Treaty, will come up during Pompeo’s discussions. The treaty is set to expire in February 2021, but there is an option to extend it for another five years after that.

"I think it’s really a good idea for him to go, only because we have to have some dialogue with the Russians, especially on arms control," said Farkas, who is now a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund. "If this administration means it when they say they want to have a new Intermediate Forces-type agreement that includes China, then we need to start that discussion.”

Trump has long prioritized working to improve relations with Russia even as he withstood considerable scrutiny for his overtures toward Putin during special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerKamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump Schiff says Intel panel will hold 'series' of hearings on Mueller report MORE's probe. Despite the efforts to broker better relations, both countries remain at odds on multiple fronts, and experts say Pompeo is unlikely to make significant progress on most issues.

The U.S. is unhappy with Russia’s continued support for embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, and relations have also flared as a result of Russia’s continued intervention in Ukraine, particularly Moscow’s recent seizure of Ukrainian ships and sailors in the Kerch Strait.

Still, Pompeo’s trip could help shape the Trump administration’s position towards Russia in the wake of the special counsel investigation, which wrapped up earlier this year. Mueller spent 22 months probing contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia and Kremlin-backed efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

The trip is also a significant one for Pompeo, who cemented himself as one of Trump’s most trusted Cabinet members since joining the administration in its infancy as CIA director. Pompeo, who supplanted Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonLeaked Trump transition vetting documents show numerous officials with 'red flags': Axios Bolton says Russia, China seeking to promote discord in Trump administration Trump's nastiest break-ups: A look at the president's most fiery feuds MORE and is now a year into his term leading the State Department, has also spearheaded denuclearization talks with North Korea.

Trump spoke to Putin last Friday for over an hour in their first discussion since the end of the special counsel probe, saying they had a "very productive" conversation. In a series of tweets he noted they discussed a range of issues including the “Russia hoax” – a term he uses to refer to Mueller’s investigation.

Later, Trump told reporters that Mueller’s report came up briefly during the conversation but that he did not press Putin over Russia interfering in the 2016 election, which Moscow has long denied despite the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusions.

“We didn’t discuss that. Really, we didn’t discuss it,” Trump said.

While Mueller detailed Trump associates' extensive contacts with Russian figures, he did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to interfere in the election, something Trump has cheered as vindicating him of allegations of "collusion." 

Beyond Mueller's findings, Trump has continued to face criticism for not doing enough to counter future Russian election meddling – criticism that Pompeo and other top officials have sought to temper.

“I talk to leaders all the time. We cover a broad range of subjects. Sometimes conversations just aren’t long enough to include every issue that might be brought up,” Pompeo said on “Fox News Sunday” last weekend when asked about Trump’s failure to broach the subject of Russian meddling in the call with Putin.

“No one should misunderstand from your question today, your viewers should not be misled. This administration has taken seriously the threat of election interference, and we’ll continue to do so,” Pompeo said.

It is unclear whether Pompeo’s meeting could precipitate another summit between Trump and Putin.

When asked Friday whether the trip would lay the groundwork for a meeting between Trump and Putin at the upcoming Group of Twenty (G20) summit in Osaka, the State Department referred questions to the White House. The White House did not provide comment.  

--This report was updated at 11:06 a.m.