May 14--WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday amid new friction over Iran, Venezuela and nuclear arms control.
Here's what's on the agenda for the Pompeo-Putin tête-...-tête, which is taking place in Sochi, a Russian beach resort on the Black Sea.
Kremlin officials have expressed frustration with the Trump administration's increasingly aggressive rhetoric about the threat Iran poses -- and a possible U.S. military response. The Trump administration has made isolating Iran economically and politically the cornerstone of its foreign policy.
Pompeo has warned in recent days that Iran or its proxies in the region were planning attacks on U.S. interests in the region, and the Pentagon has dispatched an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf to counter those alleged threats.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Monday he would press Pompeo to explain how the U.S. plans to extricate itself from a self-created crisis. "I expect a frank conversation," he said.
On Tuesday, after an initial meeting with Pompeo in Sochi, Lavrov said he hoped the discussions would lead to improved relations between the U.S. and Russia.
"I hope we'll be able to come up with specific ways how to get U.S.-Russian relations out of that regrettable state that they happen to be (in)," Lavrov told reporters in Sochi.
Pompeo said the two countries would protect their own interests, but "it's not destined that we're adversaries on every issue."
The U.S. and Russia are also at odds over the current crisis in Venezuela, where there is an ongoing power struggle between President Nicolas Maduro and the opposition leader, Juan Guaido. Russia supports Maduro, a socialist leader who has helped steer Venezuela into a severe economic crisis.
The Trump administration backs Guaido, who has made several unsuccessful attempts to oust Maduro from power despite the forceful backing of the U.S., which has imposed a series of severe sanctions on Venezuela.
After Guaido called for an uprising earlier this month, Pompeo said Maduro was about to flee the country but was convinced to stay by the Kremlin. Maduro and Russian officials have denied that account.
State Department officials have continued to accuse Russia of meddling in Venezuela on behalf of Maduro, and Pompeo is sure to raise the topic during Tuesday's session with Putin.
Nuclear weapons treaty
Perhaps the most consequential item on the agenda is a landmark U.S.-Russia arms control treaty called New START. Some advocates and lawmakers fear the Trump administration will abandon the treaty and spark a new nuclear arms race.
Trump administration officials say they're pushing to broaden the U.S. pact to include China, aiming to craft a new deal that limits China's strategic warheads and other weapons.
Trump administration officials argue that China's growing arsenal has changed the dynamics of arms control, and this new era requires a broader approach than the New START treaty offers.
But Chinese officials say they have no interest in such a deal.
"China does not see any necessity and does not intend to join bilateral talks between Russia and the U.S on nuclear disarmament," China's foreign minister, Wang Yi, told reporters on Monday during his own meeting with Russian officials in Sochi. "We keep our nuclear arsenal at a minimum level, the bare necessary level to maintain our defense."
Critics have questioned the Trump administration's quest for a tri-lateral agreement, saying it's a risky gambit that could end up jeopardizing the New START treaty, which limits the U.S. and Russia to having no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads, among other restrictions. That agreement lapses in February 2021, and experts say negotiations need to begin immediately if the Trump administration wants to renew New START.
If New START is allowed to lapse, "there will be no legally binding limits on the world's two largest nuclear arsenals for the first time in nearly five decades," Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan nonproliferation group, wrote on a recent analysis of the nascent negotiations.
Kimball noted that the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, when combined, comprise more than 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons. He expressed fears that the Trump administration's position was a ruse to kill the New START treaty, not broaden it, by making unrealistic demands.
Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, is an ardent opponent of arms control agreements, Kimball wrote, suggesting "this new grand-deal gambit does not represent a serious attempt to halt and reverse a global arms race.
"It is more likely that Trump and Bolton are scheming to walk away from New START by setting conditions they know to be too difficult to achieve," he added. ___
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