Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday meets US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the highest-level talks between the rival powers in nearly a year as they see if they can make headway on a raft of disagreements from Venezuela to Iran to arms control.
Pompeo will visit Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi less than two weeks after President Donald Trump voiced optimism about improving relations with Moscow during a more than one-hour telephone conversation with the Russian leader.
The renewed diplomacy followed the long-awaited report in the United States by investigator Robert Mueller which found that Russia interfered in the 2016 election but that the Trump campaign did not collude with Moscow, partially lifting a cloud that had hung over the mogul-turned-president for two years.
Pompeo is the highest-ranking US official to see Putin since July when Trump met him in Helsinki and stunned the US political class by appearing to accept the Russian leader's statement at face value that he did not meddle in the US election.
Trump on Monday announced that he expected a "very fruitful meeting" with Putin and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Japan, only for Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov to deny Washington had requested such a meeting and say there were "no agreements so far."
Trump's enthusiasm for courting Putin has little support in Washington, even within his own administration, which has kept up a campaign of pressure including sanctions on Russia over alleged election meddling and Moscow's support for armed separatists in Ukraine.
Pompeo, despite his close relationship with Trump, left little doubt on where he stood in remarks Saturday in California.
Addressing the conservative Claremont Institute, Pompeo said that US policymakers in recent decades had "drifted from realism" and chastised them for believing that "enfolding the likes of China and Russia into a so-called rules-based international order would hasten their domestic evolution towards democracy."
"But we can see now 30 years on, after the end of the Cold War, that the Putin regime slays dissidents in cold blood and invades its neighbours," Pompeo said, three days before he sees the Russian president.
'Frank' talks on Iran
Pompeo cancelled a stop in Moscow scheduled Monday to meet with European foreign ministers in Brussels, who have been uncomfortable with the hawkish direction of the United States, especially on Iran.
The United States has pulled out of a nuclear deal backed by the Europeans, Russia and China and instead has slapped sweeping sanctions on Iran in an all-out effort to curb Tehran's regional clout.
In recent days the United States has ramped up the pressure by deploying to the region an aircraft carrier strike group and nuclear-capable bombers, warning vaguely of imminent threats from Iran, which UN inspectors say is complying with the 2015 accord.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he would have a "frank conversation" with Pompeo on Iran on Tuesday, saying he expected the top US diplomat was pressuring the Europeans to reject Iranian overtures for relief from US sanctions.
"We will try to clarify with Pompeo how the Americans plan to get out of this crisis, which was created by their unilateral decisions," Lavrov told reporters as he met his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Sochi on Monday.
Both the United States and Russia hope to make some progress on arms control, with Moscow seeking a five-year extension of the New START treaty, which caps the number of nuclear warheads well below Cold War limits and is set to expire in 2021.
"As before, we are ready to discuss this topic with the Americans," Lavrov said.
But negotiations could be tough, with Trump calling for the treaty to be expanded to include a rising China.
The Trump administration earlier this year pulled out of another key arms control agreement, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, with NATO allies saying a new Russian missile system was in violation.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov voiced hope that Pompeo's visit would build on the telephone call with Trump and "somewhat stabilise" the relationship.
But he acknowledged that talks could be "very difficult" on Venezuela.
"The positions of the two sides are diametrically opposed, but we should still use the opportunity to let our position be known to the US administration," the Interfax news agency quoted Ryabkov as saying.
The United States has been trying for more than three months to topple President Nicolas Maduro, a leftist firebrand whose re-election was widely criticised for irregularities, and Pompeo has repeatedly blamed Russia for giving him a lifeline.
Trump, however, contradicted Pompeo after his phone call with Putin, saying the Russian president assured him that Moscow is not involved in Venezuela.