Impeachment, Ukraine, Syria and warheads color Washington visit by top Russian diplomat

Impeachment, Ukraine, Syria and warheads color Washington visit by top Russian diplomat

President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden on Trump's refusal to commit to peaceful transfer of power: 'What country are we in?' Romney: 'Unthinkable and unacceptable' to not commit to peaceful transition of power Two Louisville police officers shot amid Breonna Taylor grand jury protests MORE is set to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, as his administration walks a fine line of preserving relations with Moscow in the face of Russian aggression on a number of key policy issues.

The meeting, which will also be attended by Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTreasury sanctions individuals, groups tied to Russian malign influence activities Navalny released from hospital after suspected poisoning Overnight Defense: Pentagon redirects pandemic funding to defense contractors | US planning for full Afghanistan withdrawal by May | Anti-Trump GOP group puts ads in military papers MORE, also comes against the backdrop of the House Democrats' impeachment case against Trump and whether the president abused the power of his office by withholding military aid to Ukraine — that was intended to counter Russia — in exchange for investigating a domestic political rival.

Ukraine is fighting Russian-backed separatists in the east of its country in a more than five-year-old war that has killed nearly 14,000 people and displaced millions. In addition to military aid, the U.S. has rejected Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula on the Black Sea. The status of the territory is likely to feature in the bilateral talks.

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It is Lavrov’s first visit to the U.S. since 2017. A senior administration official confirmed to The Hill on Monday evening that Trump will meet with Pompeo and Lavrov "to discuss the state of the bilateral relationship."

A senior administration official confirmed to The Hill on Monday evening that Trump will meet with Pompeo and Lavrov "to discuss the state of the bilateral relationship."

The administration has sought an amicable relationship with Moscow, often despite Russian aggression that included launching a disinformation campaign targeting U.S. elections. Washington has also raised the alarm against Russian arms sales to NATO allies, violations of mutual arms treaties and territorial ambitions into neighboring countries, including Georgia.

Meanwhile, Trump has called for Russia to be readmitted to the Group of Seven and for Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinNavalny released from hospital after suspected poisoning Ex-Trump national security adviser says US leaders 'making it easy for Putin' to meddle The Hill's Campaign Report: GOP set to ask SCOTUS to limit mail-in voting MORE to attend the world power summit. He has also raised doubts over Russia’s role in attacking U.S. elections and has been criticized by U.S. security officials for repeating widely discredited claims that Ukrainian officials were responsible for election meddling, an assertion the officials called Russian propaganda.

“One doesn’t get the impression that these are the parties that can make a real substantial change in U.S. and Russian relations,” said Will Pomerantz, deputy director of the Wilson Center, referring to the president.

“All the questions over impeachment, over Russian interference and attempts to create a counternarrative that simply is not true. These are all issues that are going to be front and center for the next several months. I don’t see President Trump being able to make major overtures to Russia while we’re undergoing impeachment and a potential trial in the Senate. That would be very brazen I think,” he said.

The stakes are high for the meeting between the two top diplomats, as the U.S. currently has sanctions imposed on more than 300 Russian individuals and entities. The U.S. imposed additional sanctions following the assassination attempt of a former Russian military official with a chemical weapon nerve agent that took place on the territory of a NATO ally, in the town of Salisbury, England.

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Moscow is also holding a former U.S. Marine, Paul Whelan, who was arrested on charges of espionage in December 2018. U.S. diplomatic officials have criticized the charges against Whelan, which he denies as well, and have accused Moscow of denying the American medical treatment, access to translation services and contact with his family.

Russia disputes the accusations by the U.S.

Yet Russia has positioned itself as an indispensable mediator in Syria, filling the vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal from the northeastern part of the country that left American-backed Kurdish forces, who had been U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS, vulnerable to an offensive launched by Turkey.

Russia is patrolling a "safe zone" on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad to enforce a cease-fire between Turkish-backed proxy forces and Kurdish forces, but has expanded its presence by recently entering the city of Raqqa, the former so-called Islamic State stronghold and the center of its planning for launching terrorist operations.

The U.S. could also come up against European allies for criticizing a nearly completed natural gas pipeline traveling from Russia to Germany. The U.S. is criticizing the pipeline, called Nord Stream II for increasing Europe’s dependence on Russian energy and depriving Ukraine of key energy revenues it currently receives as the main distributor to Europe.

“Russia is really effective at trying to sow confusion and discord, that’s the essence of what Russia has tried to do in our democracy,” said Brad Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “If we haven’t learned by now, when you ignore aggression from Putin it simply gives a green light for more of the same.”

Washington and Moscow are also on a countdown to extend a key nuclear arms control treaty in 2021, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which Russia is keen to extend as the U.S. weighs expanding the agreement to include China’s missile capabilities.

“I think any future, major strategic arms control agreements really have to include China,” Bowman said. “I suspect the Administration is empathetic to that view and I hope they keep that in mind during the conversation’s between Pompeo and Lavrov.”