Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Sochi Tuesday, holding talks that are aimed at improving relations between Washington and Moscow. But the discussions also allowed them to air their disagreements — and they took advantage of that, diverging on topics from Russia's attempts to destabilize other countries to how to resolve crises in Venezuela, Iran and other complicated issues.
At a wide-ranging news conference, Pompeo said the two spoke about "the question of interference in our domestic affairs," adding that Russia now has a chance to prove "that these types of activities are a thing of the past."
Pompeo later said, "I made clear to Foreign Minister Lavrov... that interference in American elections is unacceptable. If the Russians were to engage in that in 2020, it would put our relationship in an even worse place than it has been."
"We would not tolerate that," he added.
Pompeo is also slated to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin during his visit to Sochi, the Black Sea resort that hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Describing talks that went on for well over an hour, Lavrov said they held "negotiations" on a variety of pressing global issues, from Venezuela, the Korean peninsula and Iran, as well as Ukraine, Syria and Afghanistan.
Both of the diplomats said they had "frank" discussions on those issues.
He and Pompeo have decided to rebuild channels of communication between the U.S. and Russia, Lavrov said.
"Lately these channels were frozen," Lavrov said, citing what he called "baseless accusations against us" regarding Russia's attempts to influence American elections and "certain collusion of high-ranking officials."
Saying that "such insinuations are absolutely fake," Lavrov added that with the release of special counsel Robert Mueller's report, "we hope that this tumultuous situation will die down."
To improve relations, Lavrov recommended creating a "nongovernmental expert council of famous political analysts, ex-military and diplomats" who could offer a "fresh take" on overcoming mistrust.
On Venezuela — the country where the Trump administration has backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó's bid to become president — Pompeo said, "We have disagreement."
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has "brought nothing but misery to the Venezuelan people," Pompeo said, "and we hope that Russia's support for Maduro will end."
Despite being at odds on that issue, Pompeo added, the U.S. and Russia should work to ease the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. He later called on "every country that's interfering in Venezuela to cease doing that. We want the Venezuelan people to get their democracy back."
Showing the depths of the disagreement over Venezuela, Lavrov countered, "Democracy cannot be done by force." He cited threats against Maduro's government that have come from both U.S. officials and from Guaidó himself.
"This has nothing in common with democracy," Lavrov said. And to drive home his point, he mentioned America's intervention in Iraq, and its long-running attempts to install democracy there.
Pompeo also said he "raised the issue of U.S. citizens who have been detained in Russia" — U.S. citizen Paul Whelan, an ex-Marine has been held since his arrest in late December.
Both officials said that while they noted their differences, they are intent on working through them. As Pompeo said at the start of his meeting with Lavrov, "I'm here today because President Trump is committed to improving this relationship."
Tuesday's trip to Russia is the latest leg of Pompeo's journey that included meetings with EU officials in Brussels Monday — a surprise visit that displaced what had been a scheduled visit to the U.S. embassy in Moscow. While in Belgium, Pompeo discussed another high-profile part of the Trump administration's foreign policy, its sanctions against Iran.
When he was asked about the U.S. withdrawal from an international agreement on Iran's nuclear program in Sochi — and recent reports that the U.S. may be planning to mass some 120,000 troops to the Persian Gulf — Pompeo said the Trump administration is pressuring Iran's leaders because "we're looking for Iran to behave like a normal country."
"We fundamentally do not seek a war with Iran," Pompeo said.
As for reports that more U.S. troops could be moved to the Middle East, Pompeo said he would defer to the Defense Department. He added, "We've also made clear to the Iranians that if American interests are attacked, we will most certainly respond in an appropriate fashion."
At the start of the sessions between the top U.S. and Russian diplomats, Lavrov told Pompeo, "I believe that it is time to build a new, more constructive and responsible matrix of our relationship, of our mutual perception. We are prepared to do that, if our U.S. colleagues and counterparts are ready to reciprocate that."
Lavrov added that the two countries must now rebuild trust, concluding, "Let's try, and see what happens."
In reply, Pompeo noted that they have met twice in the past two weeks, with more chances to come. And he said that despite their differences, the two countries might work together better.
"It's not destined that we're adversaries on every issue, and I hope that we can find places where we have a set of overlapping interests and can truly begin to build out strong relationships — at least on those particular issues."
Pompeo noted examples such as counter-terrorism and security concerns.