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Arms control, Venezuela, Iran high on Pompeo's Russia agenda

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will head to Russia next week for talks with President Vladimir Putin amid heightened U.S.-Russia tensions over the crisis in Venezuela and the Trump administration's hardline policy on Iran, the State Department said Friday.

Pompeo's meeting with Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Tuesday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi will be the highest-level face-to-face talks between the former Cold War foes since the release of special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Putin and President Donald Trump spoke at length by phone last week and Pompeo saw Lavrov earlier this week in Finland.

The trip will be Pompeo's first to Russia as secretary of state and as he prepared for his weekend departure, administration critics, including congressional Democrats, noted that a statement highly critical of alleged Russian involvement in an attempted coup in Montenegro had been removed from the State Department's website.

The statement, which had been released on Thursday, said a Montenegrin court's conviction in absentia of two Russian intelligence officers for plotting to overthrow the Balkan country's government and prevent it from joining NATO was "a clear victory for the rule of law, laying bare Russia's brazen attempt to undermine the sovereignty of an independent European nation."

After Pompeo's office objected to the release, the statement was taken down from the website, according to officials, who stressed that it had not been formally recalled and still reflected U.S. government policy. Its removal, first reported by Foreign Policy, however, appeared to amuse Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee who tweeted a screenshot of the statement, saying "Good news, @StateDept: we saved a copy."

The State Department said Pompeo and Putin and Lavrov would discuss "the full range of bilateral and multilateral challenges" facing the two countries. A senior department official said in addition to Venezuela and Iran, the talks would include arms control, stalled U.S. nuclear negotiations with North Korea, Syria, Russia's support for separatists in eastern Ukraine and Washington's concerns about Russian election interference efforts.

The official, who was not authorized to preview the trip publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said Pompeo did not necessarily expect the talks to produce any "overnight" breakthroughs and were instead "an opportunity to take the conversation to a higher level."

The official said one primary focus of the meeting would be Trump's desire to modernize and expand existing arms control agreements, particularly ahead of the formal U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty in August after Washington's repeated complaints that Moscow was violating it. Trump has said he wants new arms control accords that reflect the current post-Cold War situation and bring in other nations, notably China. The official would not be specific about any particular agreement Pompeo would push.

After meeting with Lavrov on the sidelines of an Arctic Council foreign ministers meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland, on Monday, Pompeo said he believed the conversation had been "good" and had set the stage for potentially positive discussions on the significant differences between Washington and Moscow on many issues.

"We covered a wide range of issues and I think on every one have charted a way that we can begin to have positive conversations forward," he said. "We have interests that are definitely different and there will be places where we run into hard stops pretty quickly, but there is no doubt there was a desire to begin to try and find paths where we can make real progress on places where we have overlapping interests."

After speaking with Putin last Friday, Trump appeared to undercut strong criticism of Russia's support for embattled Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro from Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton. Trump said Putin had no desire to be involved in Venezuela, although Pompeo and Bolton have made increasingly strong demands for Russia and Cuba to cease support for Maduro over U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido.

Pompeo, however, said he had reiterated his previous calls for Russia to get out of Venezuela. "I made clear our view that the Venezuelans deserve a democracy that doesn't have any foreign party running their country or involved in their country on a consistent basis in a military way."

In response, Russia has accused the U.S. of illegally interfering in Venezuela's internal affairs.

As tensions between Washington and Tehran over re-imposed U.S. sanctions have heightened in recent weeks, Moscow has sided with Iran in calling for the 2015 nuclear deal to remain in place. Iran said this week it would partially end its compliance with the deal unless European nations are able to circumvent the sanctions and provide it with benefits it was due under the accord, from which Trump withdrew last year.

This week, the U.S. said it was dispatching an aircraft carrier group and B-52 bombers to the Middle East in response to intelligence that Iran is preparing to retaliate for the sanctions with attacks on American interests in the region.

On election interference, although Trump has downplayed its significance and rejected allegations that his campaign colluded with Russia to win in 2016, Pompeo said he had told Lavrov in Finland that "it's not appropriate and that we're going to do everything we can to deter it."

The senior official said Pompeo would be interested in hearing Putin's account of his recent meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who visited Vladivostok, Russia, last month amid an impasse in talks with the U.S. and has since directed several ballistic missile tests.

Pompeo will begin his two-day visit in Moscow, where he will meet employees of the U.S. Embassy as well as American business leaders and Russian alumni of State Department-run exchange programs.

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