The second-most senior U.S. diplomat wrapped up talks with top Russian officials in Moscow Wednesday — capping a two-day visit aimed at bridging differences over issues including the ongoing political crisis in Belarus and the sudden illness of a leading Russian political opposition figure from what appears to be a poisoning.
The visit by Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun to the Russian capital marked an intensifying U.S. effort to find a peaceful solution in Belarus, where thousands of demonstrators continue to protest results of August 9 presidential elections that longtime Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko claims he won in a landslide.
The U.S. has agreed with protesters in calling into question the fairness of the vote count and criticized widespread evidence of the beating and torture of detained demonstrators.
Yet, ahead of talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Biegun signaled that Washington was not eager to accept efforts by Lukashenko to cast the election standoff as an East versus West showdown that might trigger direct Russian involvement.
"We urge the government of Belarus to accept the OSCE chair's offer to facilitate dialogue and engage all stakeholders," said Biegun during a stopover in Vilnius, Lithuania earlier this week.
"The United States cannot and will not decide the course of events in Belarus. This is the right of the Belarusian people."
Ahead of meetings with Beigun, Foreign Minister Lavrov also insisted Russia sought to promote a “broad national dialogue" in Belarus — but seemed to side with the government in Minsk over protester demands for fair elections.
Lavrov has argued there is simply no way to know if Lukashenko won or not due to a lack of international observers. The foreign minister has also criticized the opposition for seeking “bloodshed” and being “western-backed.”
Lukashenko has openly appealed to the Kremlin to help save his 26-year rule amid a wave of mass protests — insisting NATO-aligned countries on his border were working with the opposition to overthrow his government.
In response, the Kremlin has offered a vague promise to come to his aid under a mutual defense treaty “if necessary.”
While talks were underway, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov issued a statement warning the U.S. and European Union against imposing sanctions or political pressure on its former Soviet neighbor.
“Russia warns the U.S. and EU from any form of interference into the internal affairs of Belarus, including currently heard open calls in certain capitals to anti-government manifestations” he said.
In turn, Biegun “condemned the use of violence against the Belarusian people and expressed support for Bealrus’ sovereignty and the people’s right to self-determination,” said an embassy spokeswoman in a tweet.
Before arriving in Moscow, Beigan met with Belarusian opposition leader and Lukashenko’s primary opponent in the election Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to Lithuania amid alleged threats to her family from Lukashenko’s security forces.
Tsikhanouskaya has insisted she was the true winner of an election that has little to do with choosing between Russia or the West.
“It is a democratic revolution,” said Tsikhanouskaya in recent comments. “It is the striving of the nation to decide for itself.”
A mysterious poisoning
Biegun also expressed U.S. concern over the health of Alexey Navalny, Russia’s leading opposition politician, who suddenly fell ill aboard a flight from Siberia to Moscow last week.
Navalny has since been evacuated from the Russian city of Omsk to Berlin where German doctors say initial examinations suggest he was poisoned with some kind of cholinesterase inhibitor.
“If the reports prove accurate, the United States supports the EU’s call for a comprehensive investigation and stands ready to assist in that effort,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement issued Tuesday.
“Mr. Navalny’s family and the Russian people deserve to see a full and transparent investigation carried out, and for those involved to be held accountable,” added the statement from Pompeo.
The Kremlin said on Tuesday it saw no need to investigate the circumstances of Navalny’s illness yet — arguing findings from a German laboratory that suggested poisoning were premature.
Russian specialists in Omsk charged with Navalny’s initial care insist they found no evidence of poisoning during tests.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry also issued a statement that took direct umbrage at Biegun raising Navalny’s case while in Moscow.
“We find it deeply offensive the accusation among western capitals that there was an effort to “hide the truth” by the doctors in Omsk, who provided Navalny with immediate and highly professional care,” read the statement.
“Moreover the suspicious speed with which Washington and Brussels have accepted the version of a poisoning of Navalny was brought to the attention of our American interlocutor,” added the statement.
“Unavoidable is the question — who benefits from this? The Russian leadership certainly does not.”
The speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, the Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, has called for an investigation focusing on whether hostile foreign powers carried out the attack on Navalny to blacken Russia’s image.
Modern Russia has a history of poisonings and attacks against perceived government critics.
Despite broad differences over Navalny’s illness, Biegun’s visit also included talks on U.S.-Russian arms control and working with Moscow to contain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
On Wednesday, Biegan also met with representatives from civil society to express continued U.S. support for human rights and independent voices in Russia, according to an Embassy spokeswoman.