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Pompeo to Meet With Putin, Lavrov Amid Tensions

FILE - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, shakes hands with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as they meet on the sidelines of the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland, May 6, 2019.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov this week, as the two countries clash over a number of issues including Venezuela, Iran, and Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

Pompeo heads to Moscow Sunday, in his first visit to Russia as chief U.S. diplomat.

Top U.S. officials, including Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence, have accused Russia of working against Venezuela’s democratically elected opposition leader Juan Guaido in his attempts to oust embattled President Nicolas Maduro.

The United States accuses Russia of seeking a foothold in the Western Hemisphere through Venezuela.

“We are concerned about Russia’s actions in Venezuela, and we think the support for Maduro is a losing bet. So our support to the Venezuelan people continues, and that will be a subject for the discussion,” a senior State Department official told reporters last week.

Pompeo arrives in Russia on Monday to meet with American diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow before meeting with U.S. business leaders. He will also lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in honor of those who fought against the Nazi regime.

The secretary of state will then travel to Sochi Tuesday for talks with Putin and Lavrov.

Pompeo’s trip comes a few weeks ahead of a G-20 summit meeting in Osaka, Japan, which both U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Putin will attend.

“It is in our interest to have a better relationship with Russia,” said the senior official. “When we have concerns, we're going to raise them directly, narrow those differences and find areas we can cooperate.”

The official declined to comment on whether a meeting between Trump and Putin on the sidelines of the G-20 summit is being arranged.

The State Department says Pompeo is expected to bring up Americans being detained in Russia, including former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan and Michael Calvey, founder of the Moscow-based Baring Vostok private equity group.

Whelan was accused of espionage, a charge he denies. He is due to be kept in pre-trial detention until May 28 while the investigation continues.

Calvey was detained in February, pending a trial on embezzlement charges that he has denied. He says the case was being used to pressure him in a corporate dispute over control of a Russian bank.

“The administration places the highest priority on the safety and the welfare of U.S. citizens overseas. We stand ready to provide all appropriate consular services in cases where U.S. citizens are detained,” said the senior official.

Last month, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman visited Whelan in a Moscow jail. American diplomats have asked Russia to “stop playing games,” saying Russian officials are likely trying to get a forced false “confession” from Whelan.

Pompeo’s trip to Russia also comes as tensions simmer between the two countries over Iran.

The U.S. is strengthening its military presence in the Middle East in what officials said was a “direct response to a number of troubling and escalatory indicators and warnings" from Iran.

The USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group and four B-52 bombers have arrived in the Middle East in response to concerns Iran may be planning an attack against American targets.

On Wednesday, Lavrov asked Pompeo to use diplomacy instead of threats to solve issues after Lavrov’s talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarifin Moscow.