Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov heads to Washington for hastily scheduled meetings with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and, possibly, President Donald Trump, on Tuesday.
While a Russian Foreign Ministry statement said the mission’s purpose would be to discuss “important issues” in U.S.-Russian relations, White House officials are signaling arms control will top the agenda, along with discussions aimed at bridging differences between Washington and Moscow over Syria and Ukraine.
The idea for the talks appears to have been jumpstarted by Russian President Vladimir Putin last week, when the Russian leader said Moscow was eager to extend the New START nuclear arms control treaty by the end of this year “without any preconditions.”
“Russia is not interested in starting an arms race and deploying missiles where they are not present now,” said Putin in an addressing the nuclear treaty — which expires in 2021 — during a meeting with officials in Moscow.
Washington seems to have gotten the message.
At the recent NATO summit in London, President Donald Trump noted his awareness of Moscow’s desire to “do a deal” on arms control without providing details. Mr. Trump also suggested that U.S. and Russia negotiations eventually include China, a rising nuclear power not party to Cold War nuclear agreements.
“We'll also certainly bring in ... China. We may bring them in later, or we may bring them in now,” said the President.
Indeed, White House officials said Lavrov’s visit could include a meeting with the President — to reciprocate a courtesy extended by President Putin to Secretary Pompeo during his last visit to Moscow, says White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien.
"When [Secretary Mike] Pompeo has gone to Russia, [Vladimir] Putin's seen him. And one of the things that we've said with the- with the Chinese and the Russians is- and others, is we want reciprocity,” said O’Brien in comments to CBS News’ "Face the Nation" television program.
“And so Putin's met with ... Pompeo. I think as a matter of reciprocity, that's something we're looking at. But we're also looking at some other things. And we'll see if we can get there," O'Brien added.
For now, the State Department is confirming a “working lunch” between the two top diplomats, as well as press conference to follow.
Eye of impeachment storm
Mr. Lavrov goes to a Washington rifled by bitter partisan infighting over the ongoing impeachment inquiry against President Trump — set to pick up again this week as Democrats draft proposed articles of impeachment.
Impeachment hearings have thus far focused on Ukraine, where President Trump is accused of holding up hundreds of millions of dollars in congressionally approved aid to Kyiv in order to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy into launching an investigation into Trump’s potential Democratic rival in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections.
Yet Democratic lawmakers and former White House staffers argue Republicans' defense of the President parrots conspiracy theories pushed by Russian intelligence services: that Ukraine, not Russia, was behind a foreign interference campaign in the 2016 presidential elections.
Meanwhile, some congressional Democrats have also argued that the scope of the impeachment trial should include allegations of obstruction of justice by President Trump as detailed in a two-year Special Counsel investigation into Russian interference by special prosecutor Robert Mueller.
The result of that investigation — the so-called Mueller Report — was released earlier this year and did not find evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the elections.
Yet the report also left it to Congress to determine whether President Trump had obstructed justice during the course of an investigation that saw several members of his campaign staff sentenced to jail.
The report also agreed with U.S. security agencies that Russia unequivocally sought to influence the outcome of the 2016 race — charges both the Kremlin and President Trump deny.
Further muddying the picture is the release of a highly anticipated report by the inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, reexamining aspects of Mueller’s Russia investigation. The report is expected to address the thus far unsubstantiated claims by Trump that the FBI illegally targeted his campaign in the Russia probe.