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Putin meets Pompeo as US seeks 'way forward' in ties

AFP/File / JACQUES DEMARTHON, SAUL LOEB

The Kremlin on Tuesday slammed Washington's "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran, speaking hours before President Vladimir Putin receives US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the highest-level talks in nearly a year.

Pompeo will visit Putin in the balmy Black Sea resort of Sochi to see if Russia and Washington can make headway on a raft of disagreements from arms control to the raging Venezuela and Iran crises.

The visit comes amid mounting tensions in the Gulf, with Iran and the United States engaged in a new war of words over Teheran's nuclear deal with world powers.

AFP/File / Brendan Smialowski Trump met with Putin in Helsinki in July

Pompeo is the highest-ranking US official to see Putin since July when US President Donald Trump met him in Helsinki and stunned the US political establishment by appearing to accept the Russian leader's statement at face value that he did not meddle in the US election.

"On some issues we may agree, on others we may disagree, but when it's in our national interests, it is our responsibility to find a way forward," Pompeo tweeted on Tuesday.

Putin is expected to receive Pompeo Tuesday evening after the US secretary of state holds talks and a dinner with Moscow's top diplomat Sergei Lavrov.

- Sabre-rattling -

Ahead of the negotiations Putin will tour a top military flight test centre in southern Russia and inspect the newest nuclear-capable hypersonic missile dubbed Kinzhal (Dagger).

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that the apparent show of force was designed to send a message to the Americans.

"There's no need to come up with any conspiracy theories here," Peskov said on Tuesday.

At a meeting Monday evening, Putin also tasked his top brass with developing defences against hypersonic weapons.

AFP / JOHN THYS US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives at the EU headquarters in Brussels for talks on Iran

Peskov slammed what he called Washington's "maximum pressure" campaign on Iran, saying it would only drive Tehran into a corner.

Pompeo cancelled a stop in Moscow scheduled for Monday to meet in Brussels with European foreign ministers, who have been uncomfortable with the hawkish direction of the United States 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.

The United States has recently 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.

The renewed diplomacy between Moscow and Washington follows a long-awaited report by investigator Robert Mueller. He 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.

Besides Iran, Washington and Moscow are at loggerheads on an array of urgent strategic questions, including Venezuela, the Syrian civil war and the conflict in Ukraine.

The United States has been trying for more than three months to topple Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, a leftist firebrand whose re-election was widely criticised for irregularities. Pompeo has repeatedly blamed Russia for giving him a lifeline.

Both the United States and Russia hope to make some progress on arms control. Moscow is 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.

The Trump administration this year pulled out of another key arms control agreement, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, with NATO allies saying a Russian missile system was in violation. Moscow has denied the claims.

Last year Putin revealed a new generation of "invincible" nuclear weapons and warned of a new arms race if America pulled out of weapons treaties.

- 'Regime slays dissidents' -

Trump on Monday announced that he expected a "very fruitful meeting" with Putin at the G20 summit in Japan next month, only for Peskov to deny Washington had requested such a meeting.

The US president'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.

POOL/AFP/File / MANDEL NGAN US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met on the sidelines of the Arctic Council meeting in Finland

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". He 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."

"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.

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