Bolton heads to Moscow for high-stakes meeting with Russians

Bolton heads to Moscow for high-stakes meeting with Russians
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National security adviser John Bolton is traveling to Russia for talks early next week with top Russian officials that are likely to cover a variety of high-priority issues for the administration.

The trip is Bolton’s first to Moscow since he went to broker the details of the now infamous Helsinki summit between President TrumpDonald John TrumpAvenatti ‘still considering’ presidential run despite domestic violence arrest Mulvaney positioning himself to be Commerce Secretary: report Kasich: Wouldn’t want presidential run to ‘diminish my voice’ MORE and Russian President Vladimir Putin last July.  

The visit comes amid high tensions with Moscow on several fronts, including the conflict in Syria and the poisoning of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Britain earlier this year.

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Bolton is expected in his meetings with Russian officials next week to further discussions on issues that Putin and Trump discussed in July, including Syria, where Moscow says it has delivered a S-300 missile defense system — in defiance of warnings from the Trump administration and Israel. 

The talks are also likely to cover Iran, efforts to denuclearize North Korea, Israeli security and nuclear arms treaties.

And Bolton, long viewed as hawkish on Russia, plans to warn against interfering in U.S. elections, as he did most recently in meetings with his Russian counterpart in Geneva in August.

U.S. officials have said they don’t see evidence of Russia waging as “robust” a campaign against the November midterms as was detected in the 2016 presidential election.

But they add that Moscow’s influence operations have persisted. On Friday, the Justice Department charged a Russian woman in a conspiracy to interfere in next month’s midterms.

Bolton is due to meet with Nikolai Patrushev, his Russian counterpart, as well as foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and defense minister Sergei Shoigu. It is also possible he will meet with Putin, though the White House has said nothing definitive on the prospect. A Kremlin spokesman said Friday that the Russians are preparing for a “possible meeting” between Bolton and Putin, adding that he expected it to take place.

Bolton’s trip reflects the persistent desire of Trump and others in the administration to maintain a dialogue with Russia in order to find ways to work on issues of mutual concern, despite ongoing tensions.

“The reason for that is to continue to carry through on the conversation that President Trump and President Putin had in Helsinki during the summer to talk about U.S.-Russian relations and where we can make progress, where we still have issues and disagreement,” Bolton told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt in an interview last week.

Broadly, the administration has taken a tough stance on Moscow, but Trump’s own rhetoric on Putin and Russian interference has caused critics to cast him as soft on Russia.

And despite the president’s wish to improve relations and work with Moscow, there remains broad doubt in Washington that the administration’s efforts to engage will bear fruit.

“For the last several years, we’ve seen this fairly continuous deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations,” said Peter Harrell, a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security. “I think we’ve seen a further erosion of U.S.-Russia relations over the last several months.”

“We are now at a point that given the range of the issues where we are on the opposite sides of the issues, it’s getting harder and harder to see how you would get relations back on even keel,” added Harrell, who worked on sanctions policy at the State Department under Obama administration.

Since Helsinki, the administration has under pressure from Congress imposed fresh sanctions for the Skripal poisoning, and if Moscow does not meet certain conditions under a law governing chemical and biological weapons control, a second, harsher round of sanctions will immediately be triggered. The administration faces a Nov. 6 deadline to make an announcement on the second round of penalties.

Bolton’s Moscow trip, his second as national security adviser, also punctuates mounting intrigue surrounding the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, and is likely to be eclipsed by the ongoing fallout over the U.S.-based Saudi journalist’s presumed killing.

But Bolton could attract attention of his own depending on what comes out of his meetings with Russian officials.

It is possible but unlikely that the trip will lay the groundwork for a second meeting between Trump and Putin. Bolton said in July that Trump would postpone the meeting until next year and following the conclusion of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s investigation, which he referred to as the “Russia witch hunt.”

Any plans for a second summit would be sure to revive the drama surrounding the first, after which Trump was roundly criticized for his friendliness toward Putin and his words casting doubt on the U.S. intelligence assessment of Russian interference.

Critics also accused the White House of divulging little specific information about what was discussed or agreed to privately by the two leaders. U.S. officials pointed to topics like Syria, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Ukraine and election interference.

They indicated no formal or verbal accords were reached, beyond the agreement to continue discussions; Russia, meanwhile, worked to spin its own narrative, referring ambiguously to “agreements” that had been reached between the two parties.

Trump tapped Bolton to replace H.R. McMaster as national security adviser in March, triggering a shake up of the National Security Council in a White House where major staff changes have almost become routine.

Bolton’s departure for Moscow comes amid signs of tensions in the administration. Bloomberg reported that Bolton and White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE engaged in a heated argument outside the Oval Office on Thursday about immigration and the performance of Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenMulvaney positioning himself to be Commerce Secretary: report Dem senator expresses concerns over potential Nielsen ouster Trump pushes back on reports of chaos in White House MORE, the homeland security secretary and a Kelly ally.

White House officials have not denied the incident outright, though press secretary Sarah Sanders on Thursday deflected blame to congressional Democrats for tensions over immigration.

“While we are passionate about solving the issue of illegal immigration, we are not angry at one another,” Sanders said in a statement. “However, we are furious at the failure of Congressional Democrats to help us address this growing crisis.”

A White House official subsequently told The Hill that Bolton and Nielsen had a “very productive” discussion in his office following the incident, noting that the two are “both aligned on border security being the number one objective.”

Bolton’s meetings in Moscow are expected to take place Monday and Tuesday, after which he will travel to Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia – the countries that comprise the Caucasus region. 

Bolton told Hewitt last week he plans to meet with his foreign counterparts there “to see the very significant geographical role that they have dealing with Iran, dealing with Russia, dealing with Turkey."