In the Thick of It

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Pompeo and Putin

Pompeo in Russia: Key Takeaways on Bilateral Priorities

May 15, 2019
RM Staff

“I am here because President Trump is committed to improving this relationship,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at the start of his May 14 talks with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and, later that day, with President Vladimir Putin. Though the atmosphere in the seaside Russian resort town of Sochi was upbeat and conciliatory, it nonetheless could not hide all the many differences between Moscow and Washington. The visit, as noted by the Financial Times, “comes amid speculation over the potential for new U.S. sanctions against Russia, clashes between the two countries over the crisis in Venezuela and moves by the U.S. to isolate Iran, an ally of Moscow.” Putin’s talks with Pompeo—who was making his first trip to Russia as secretary of state—focused mostly on international issues, including Syria, North Korea, Afghanistan, Libya, Iran and Venezuela, as well as strategic stability and nonproliferation, according to the Russian president’s aide Yuri Ushakov. Election interference also came up, and Pompeo and Lavrov's meeting covered similar ground. Prior to the talks, a senior State Department official had told reporters that the two foreign ministers would be having a “very candid conversation” about concerns in the bilateral relationship.

Below you will find key comments related to the meetings made by Pompeo, Putin, Lavrov and other officials, as well as some analysis and recent developments that add important context.

This post was originally published May 14, 2019, and has been updated since then.

I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • Before the Sochi meetings, a senior State Department official had told reporters that the two sides had had constructive discussions on efforts to get Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons. That's occurred, he said, “even though we don't agree with Russia about all the details of how to achieve this goal.” (RFE/RL, 05.10.19)
  • Russian officials told Pompeo that Moscow "is open to cooperation with all interested parties with the aim of creating a stable security mechanism in Northeast Asia. We stressed that it is very important in this context to provide international security guarantees to North Korea in response to its steps on denuclearization," Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov said after Pompeo’s talks with Putin. He added that Moscow thinks Pyongyang will not give in to "any type of pressure" and that both countries’ leadership has been happy with the contacts between Russian and U.S. representatives for North Korea. (TASS, 05.14.19)
  • Lavrov, after his meeting with Pompeo, said that Russia does support negotiations over nuclear disarmament with North Korea. Although Putin met with the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, last month, Lavrov offered no suggestion that the stalemate in nuclear talks would break anytime soon. “We are ready to support that dialogue,” he said. (New York Times, 05.14.19)

Iran’s nuclear program and related issues:

  • A day after the Pompeo meeting Putin said Moscow was sorry to see Iran’s nuclear deal falling apart but stressed that “Russia is not a fire brigade” and “cannot rescue everything that does not fully depend on us. We’ve played our part.” He urged Iran not to quit the 2015 agreement but also said that after Washington’s withdrawal Europe could do “nothing” to salvage the deal. Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov called Putin and Pompeo’s discussion of the Iran nuclear deal brief and “interesting,” specifying that Russia is “critical of the recent actions of the US administration.” (Al Arabiya, 05.15.19, TASS, 05.14.19)
  • Prior to the Sochi meetings Pompeo had been scheduled to spend a day in Moscow to meet Americans based in Russia and to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but he canceled that leg of the trip and met instead with European counterparts in Brussels, who have been worried about a potential U.S. military conflict with Iran. State Department special representative for Iran Brian Hook told reporters following the May 13 meetings that Pompeo had "shared information and intelligence with allies and discussed the multiple plot vectors emerging from Iran.” Pompeo held bilateral meetings with the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany, cosignatories of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, as well as with the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini. He did not speak to the media, but the European officials said they had urged restraint upon Washington, fearing accidental escalation that could lead to conflict with Iran. (The Washington Post, 05.14.19, CNN, 05.13.19, New York Times, 05.13.19)
  • After their meeting, Pompeo said he and Lavrov "spoke a bit" about the situation in the Middle East, particularly Iran. "I made clear that the United States will continue to apply pressure to the regime in Tehran until its leadership is prepared to return to the ranks of responsible nations that do not threaten their neighbors and do not spread instability or terror," he said, adding, “We fundamentally do not seek war with Iran.” Pompeo's remarks came in response to a question about additional U.S. forces that have been deployed to the Middle East to counter what U.S. officials have said is a rising threat from Iran. “We have also made clear to the Iranians that if American interests are attacked we will most certainly respond in the appropriate fashion.” At a meeting of Trump’s top national security aides on May 9, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan presented an updated military plan that envisions sending as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East should Iran attack American forces or accelerate work on nuclear weapons, administration officials said. The revisions were ordered by hard-liners led by John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser. They do not call for a land invasion of Iran, which would require vastly more troops, officials said. This week in the Persian Gulf region mysterious attacks have been reported on oil tankers and a pipeline of Iran’s great rival, Saudi Arabia, raising fears of coming violence. (CNN, 05.14.19, The Washington Post, 05.14.19, New York Times, 05.13.19, New York Times, 05.14.19)
  • “We will try to make sure that the situation doesn’t devolve into a war scenario,” Lavrov said at the news conference with Pompeo. “How to do it is the diplomats’ business. I got the feeling that the American side is also interested in a political solution.” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters May 15 that there had been “no assurances [about Iran] from Pompeo.” (The Washington Post, 05.14.19, Al Arabiya, 05.15.19)
  • Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran, also told reporters before the Sochi meetings that Iran would be on the agenda in the context of Syria as well: “We know that it is in Russia's interest to stabilize Syria and as long as Iran is using Syria as a missile platform to advance its foreign policy objectives, it will not be stable,” he said. (CNN, 05.13.19)

Military issues, including NATO-Russia relations:

  • According to current and former U.S. officials familiar with internal State Department deliberations, Pompeo’s office recently directed the department to quash a harshly worded statement condemning a “Russian-backed coup attempt” in Montenegro ahead of the Balkan nation’s entry into NATO. The officials suggested his had been done because the secretary wanted to soften combative tones with Moscow ahead of his visit to Russia. (Foreign Policy, 05.10.19)

Nuclear arms control:

  • Ahead of Pompeo’s trip, a senior State Department official told reporters that an arms control agreement would be at the top of the agenda. Earlier this month, Trump said that in a phone call with Putin he had discussed the potential for a new, three-way deal on nuclear arms that would include China. Pompeo and Lavrov were also expected to discuss prospects for the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, or INF, Treaty, which both sides have stepped away from over a compliance dispute, and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, also known as New START, which will soon expire. (New York Times, 05.14.19, TASS, 05.14.19)
  • “We will gather together teams that will work not only on New START and its potential extension but on a broader range of arms-control initiatives,” Pompeo said at the news conference following his meeting with Lavrov. (The Washington Post, 05.14.19)
  • Pompeo also said that Trump remains interested in bringing other countries, including China, into an arms-control framework—an idea that has drawn skepticism in Moscow. "[The] president wants serious arms control that delivers real security to the American people," Pompeo said. "To achieve these goals, we'll have to work together and it would be important, that if it's possible, we get China involved as well." (The Washington Post, 05.14.19, CNN, 05.14.19)
  • In a striking bit of counterprogramming, Putin examined a new hypersonic, nuclear-capable missile system at a southern Russian defense plant before his meeting with Pompeo. The Kremlin insisted that the visit was coincidental. (The Washington Post, 05.14.19)


  • A senior State Department official noted last week that there are areas where the U.S. is working jointly with Russia, such as the Afghan peace process and counterterrorism. (CNN, 05.13.19)
  • Russia and the United States should cooperate more actively on a peace settlement in Afghanistan, Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters after Pompeo’s talks with Putin. He said Putin had noted the “rather good cooperation between specialists of our countries” but had also pointed out that the Taliban is getting stronger, “so we need to step up cooperation and try to achieve the balance of power in this country,” Ushakov said. Russia, China and the U.S. held a trilateral meeting in Moscow on the situation in Afghanistan on April 25, after which they called on the Taliban to join talks with Afghan authorities as soon as possible. (TASS, 05.14.19)

Conflict in Syria:

  • Describing Putin and Pompeo’s talks on Syria, Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov said they "discussed the importance of jointly fighting against international terrorism and noted that it is very important to finally launch the Syrian constitutional committee." Ushakov noted that "the discussion was business-like and constructive, and it revealed many aspects on which we have similar positions." Ushakov added that Russia favors “a peaceful negotiations process under the auspices of the U.N. with participation of all constructive forces” and that Putin stressed the importance of respecting Syria’s sovereignty and “preserving its territorial integrity.” (TASS, 05.14.19)
  • Pompeo said he was “excited” about the Syria part of the conversation with Putin, hinting that some agreement was found on “how to move the political process forward,” specifically on getting various Syrian factions together to discuss forming a non-sectarian government in line with a 2015 U.N. Security Council resolution. But both Putin and Trump have limited influence on that process, and Pompeo admitted, “I’m not sure we have all the capacity of that.” (Bloomberg, 05.15.19)
  • Pompeo and Lavrov discussed the escalation of violence in Idlib, Syria. (CNN, 05.14.19)
  • See also “Iran’s nuclear program and related issues” above.

Elections interference:

  • Putin told Pompeo that Russia has never interfered in U.S. elections and praised the Mueller report as "objective." "Despite all the exotic work of Mr. Mueller's commission, I have to give him his due: On the whole, he conducted an objective investigation and confirmed the absence of any traces of a conspiracy between Russia and the current administration," Putin told Pompeo at Bocharov Ruchey, his summer residence outside Sochi. Putin said allegations of meddling had hurt U.S.-Russia relations, but "I'm hoping today the situation is changing." (RFE/RL, 05.14.19, ABC News, 05.14.19)
  • At a news conference following three hours of meetings with Lavrov and other diplomats, Pompeo said he had warned his counterpart against any “unacceptable” Russian meddling in U.S. elections and had told Lavrov that any such action by the Russians in the 2020 elections “would put our relationship in an even worse place than it has been.” “There are things that Russia can do to demonstrate that those kinds of activities are a thing of the past,” Pompeo said. “Our elections are important and sacred and they must be kept free and fair and with no outside country interfering in those elections.” (AP, 05.14.19, The Washington Post, 05.14.19, CNN, 05.14.19)
  • Lavrov, meanwhile, accused the United States of funding Russian nongovernmental organizations with the intent of interfering in Russia's elections. He dismissed the election allegations again as "complete fiction," before giving a length discourse on historical occasions when the U.S. and Russia have accused one another of interference or pledged to avoid it, including in the 1930s. (Pompeo tried to smooth over the dispute with humor, saying, "You can see we have some disagreements on this issue. I promise not to go back to the early '30s.") Lavrov also said he expected the recent publication of the Mueller report to clear the way for Russian-American cooperation. “Passions will subside,” he said. (RFE/RL, 05.14.19, ABC News, 05.14.19, New York Times, 05.14.19)
  • A day after Pompeo’s meetings, House Democrats restarted the debate over additional Russia sanctions as punishment for the 2016 election meddling: Draft legislation that would target Russia’s sovereign debt, energy sector and financial institutions was added to the agenda for a May 15 House Financial Services subcommittee hearing on the use of sanctions to address national security challenges. The bill has not been formally introduced in the House, and there is no current timeline to bring it to the floor for a vote. The purpose of the bill is to gather ideas and hear from experts about how to more effectively implement sanctions, according to a person familiar with the committee’s plans. (Bloomberg, 05.15.19)

Energy exports:

  • Putin, speaking ahead of talks with Pompeo, said the two had something to talk about when it came to stability on global energy markets. (Reuters, 05.14.19)

Other bilateral issues:

  • “I am here because President Trump is committed to improving this relationship,” Pompeo said at the start of talks with Lavrov. “Each of our countries will protect its own interests,” Pompeo said. “But it is not destined that we are adversaries on every issue. I hope we can find places where we have a set of overlapping interests and can truly begin to build out strong relationships at least on those particular issues,” he said, citing arms control, nuclear weapons and security co-operation. “I hope this good faith effort … will stabilize the relationship and put it back on a trajectory that will be good not only for our two countries and each of our peoples but the world as well.” (Financial Times, 05.14.19)
  • Pompeo reiterated these sentiments sitting across from Putin later in the day: "We'll protect our nation's interests but there are places that our two countries can find where we can be cooperative, we can be productive, we can be accumulative, we can work together to make our two peoples more, and frankly the world, more successful too," he said in brief remarks prior to his meeting with Putin. "President Trump wants to do everything we can and he asked me to travel here to communicate that." (CNN, 05.14.19)
  • Putin told Pompeo he hoped to "fully restore" ties between Moscow and Washington and thought that Trump genuinely wanted to do the same. "As you know, just recently, a few days ago, I had the pleasure of talking with the president of the United States over the phone. I got the impression that the president intends to restore Russian-American relations, contacts, and solve issues that are of mutual interest to us together," Putin said. "We, for our part, have repeatedly said that we would also like to fully restore relations, I hope that now the necessary conditions are being created for this." (RFE/RL, 05.14.19, CNN, 05.14.19)
  • Lavrov told Pompeo ahead of their meeting: “I hope that today we will be able to try to work out concrete proposals aimed at bringing Russian-American relations out of the present sad state in which they ended up due to various objective and subjective reasons… We understand that a lot of suspicion and prejudice has accumulated on both sides. But neither you nor we will gain anything from it,” he added, in remarks broadcast by television channels. “On the contrary, mutual distrust increases the risks for our and your security and causes concern to the entire world community.” (Financial Times, 05.14.19)
  • In Sochi Pompeo and Lavrov appeared at ease with other, with Lavrov referring to Pompeo as “Mike” throughout. Lavrov said both countries are overdue to dispel “suspicions and prejudices” and to “start building a new constructive framework” of how Russia and the U.S see each other. However, both described their discussion as “frank,” often diplomat-speak to describe disagreements verging on testy. “It is clear that our relations have seen better times,” Lavrov said. (ABC News, 05.14.19, AP, 05.14.19, New York Times, 05.14.19)
  • Russia continues to hold U.S. citizens, including Paul Whelan and Michael Calvey, in detention, where they have been denied adequate consular services, according to U.S. officials. Pompeo said he raised the issue during his meetings. He was also scheduled to meet with members of the U.S. business community, which has been rattled by the arrests, but it was not clear at the time of this writing whether the meetings have taken or would take place. (CNN, 05.13.19, CNN, 05.14.19, RFE/RL, 05.10.19)
  • Pompeo’s trip comes amid a flurry of new talks between Moscow and Washington. Lavrov and Pompeo previously met in Finland earlier this month, and Trump and Putin recently spoke by phone for more than an hour. “Considering we have met two times in the last two weeks, that’s a reason for optimism,” Lavrov told Pompeo at the start of their meeting. (The Washington Post, 05.14.19)
  • Trump said May 13 that he would meet Putin in person at the Group of 20 summit in Japan in June. A Kremlin spokesman, however, said May 14 that no formal request for such a meeting had arrived yet and noted that Trump had canceled a meeting between the two presidents at the last minute in December. “We of course heard President Trump's statement that he expects to hold a meeting with President Putin,” Lavrov said at the news conference. “If such a proposal officially arrives, then we will of course respond to it affirmatively.” (The Washington Post, 05.14.19)
  • Days before the Sochi meetings, both Trump and Putin took care to show their swagger. Trump set the stage for Pompeo's first diplomatic trip to Russia by saying: "I think the message is that there's never been anybody that's been so tough on Russia." Meanwhile, the Kremlin released video of Putin's presidential plane landing at a weapons-testing center, escorted by six fighter jets. (CNN, 05.14.19)
  • The West tends to blame tensions with Russia on Moscow’s attempts to destabilize its rivals, undermine democracies and alliances and expand its influence. Last week a senior State Department official told reporters: “The starting point we have to have when we discuss our policy toward Russia … is to acknowledge frankly that Russia has taken a series of aggressive and destabilizing actions on the global stage,” the official said. “This trip is an opportunity to make those points clear to the Russian government and what our expectations are and [to] see how to forge a path forward.” (New York Times, 05.14.19, RFE/RL, 05.10.19)
  • 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 in Sochi. “I think the basic understanding for this exists, which was discussed by our presidents at their meeting last year at the summit in Helsinki and then several times by phone.” (New York Times, 05.14.19)
  • Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky writes that Pompeo’s visit to Sochi and his meetings with Putin and Lavrov have only confirmed that the U.S. and Russia “still have nothing substantive on which to agree. … This is a new normal that probably can only be changed, for better or for worse, by some momentous event like the dismantling of the Putin regime. … The bizarre, and by now familiar, ritual of touching on a well-known list of issues without making any reportable progress on any of them was repeated during Pompeo’s visit.” (Bloomberg, 05.15.19)

II. Foreign affairs, trade and investment

Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:

  • Putin told Pompeo that any U.S. steps that provoke a civil war in Venezuela are unacceptable, according to a Kremlin aide. The sides had "a rather frank discussion" on Venezuela at the talks, Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov said. "We stressed that different parties in the conflict should start a dialogue and noted that any attempts to oust the current president with the help of outside pressure are, first of all, counterproductive, and secondly, they may have disastrous consequences for the situation in the region," he added. Ushakov also noted that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's future was not discussed at the meeting. (Reuters, 05.14.19, TASS, 05.14.19)
  • Lavrov, after meeting with Pompeo, defended Russia’s position on Venezuela and said the threats received by President Nicolas Maduro’s government from U.S. administration officials, coupled with opposition leader Juan Guaido’s seeming support for a foreign military intervention, “bear no relation to democracy.” Lavrov likened Washington's push for a new government in Venezuela to the U.S. war in Iraq and the toppling of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. “Russia is in favor of the people of this country determining its future,” he said. (AP, 05.14.19, RFE/RL, 05.14.19, New York Times, 05.14.19)
  • Pompeo said that Maduro has “brought nothing but misery to the Venezuelan people. We hope that Russia's support for Maduro will end. But despite our disagreements, we’ll keep talking.” (RFE/RL, 05.14.19, New York Times, 05.14.19)
  • Earlier this month Pompeo and Lavrov discussed Venezuela, among other issues, on the sidelines of an Arctic Council meeting in Finland. “We want the Cubans out, we want the Iranians out, Russia’s military out,” Pompeo told reporters at the time. “We started to talk about how our interests might be able to find a way forward. I don’t know that we’ll get to the right place, but we’ll have further conversations.” During a failed April 30 coup attempt in Venezuela, Pompeo and Lavrov had a testy phone call, which the Russian foreign minister later dismissed as ineffectual: "I think Mike Pompeo called me just to then publicly say he did." (New York Times, 05.14.19, CNN, 05.14.19)
  • In a recent analysis for the Kennan Institute, Colombia-based political scientist Vladimir Rouvinski wrote: “Three key aspects of interaction between Moscow and Caracas are essential to understand Russia’s policy toward the region and Venezuela in particular”; first is Russia’s “return” to Latin America in the late 1990s “and subsequent events leading to the present challenges”; second is the role of political priorities, not business interests, in guiding Russian involvement in key sectors of Venezuela’s economy such as oil and gas; “[t]hird, is the Russian view (among an important part of Russian political elites) that the current crisis in Venezuela stems from U.S.-backed efforts of sabotage and not the disastrous economic policies of the Bolivarian government”; finally, “the evidence suggests that Venezuela has become a kind of a suitcase without a handle for Putin: hard to carry but difficult to throw away.” (Kennan Institute, February 2019)


  • Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held talks with Putin and Lavrov in Sochi on May 13, the day before Pompeo’s visit. Wang said China-Russia relations “are not vulnerable to obstruction or outside interference” and set an example “beyond compare,” while the world was “in chaos and disorder” with “unilateralism run[ning] rampant”—a thinly veiled criticism of U.S. policy. Wang’s comment came after Beijing and Washington had dramatically escalated their tit-for-tat trade war. (South China Morning Post, 05.14.19)
  • See “Nuclear arms control” section above.


  • Pompeo said after the talks with Lavrov that he had told Moscow to free a group of detained Ukrainian sailors and to work with Ukraine’s new president to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. However, asked later whether it was still a precondition that Russia must release the Ukrainian sailors before Trump would meet with Putin—as they are expected to do at the G20 Summit in June—Pompeo did not answer. (Reuters, 05.14.19, CNN, 05.14.19)
  • Pompeo also reasserted that the Trump administration does not recognize Russia's annexation of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in 2014 -- something the Russian government insists is no longer open for discussion. (CNN, 05.14.19)
  • Putin and Pompeo did not discuss Ukraine "at all," according to Putin's aide Yuri Ushakov. (Russia Matters, 05.15.19)

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