US President Donald Trump was today scheduled to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin’s top diplomat at the White House, the White House said, marking the highest level, face-to-face contact with Russia of the US leader’s presidency.
It would also signal that the two countries have improved ties that Trump recently described as being at an “all-time low.”
Trump’s talks with Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov were to take place after the Russian’s meetings earlier in the day with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
A Russian plan to stabilize Syria after more than six years of civil war was to be the most urgent foreign policy topic on the agenda.
However, the meeting will be impossible to separate from the Trump administration’s unfolding political drama in Washington, where FBI and congressional investigations are looking into possible collusion between Trump campaign associates and the Kremlin related to last year’s presidential election.
US intelligence agencies accuse Moscow of meddling to help Trump’s chances of victory.
The stigma of the Russia probes has been impossible for Trump to shake.
Trump on Tuesday abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey, dramatically ousting the nation’s top law enforcement official in the midst of the bureau’s investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia.
Less than one month into Trump’s presidency, he fired then-US national security adviser Michael Flynn, saying Flynn misled senior administration officials about his pre-inauguration talks with Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak.
In a US Senate hearing on Monday, former acting US attorney general Sally Yates said she bluntly warned Trump’s White House in January that Flynn “essentially could be blackmailed” by the Russians because he apparently had lied to his bosses about his contacts with Kislyak.
Trump has said he has no ties to Russia and is not aware of any involvement by his aides in any Russian election interference.
He calls the various investigations a “hoax” driven by Democrats still bitter that their presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton was defeated last year.
However, his hopes for a possible rapprochement with Moscow, so regularly repeated during the campaign, have been derailed.
Ties last month soured further after the US blamed a Russian ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, for a deadly chemical weapons attack on civilians and Trump fired nearly 60 cruise missiles at a Syrian air base in response.
After Tillerson visited Putin and Lavrov in Moscow on April 12, Trump said: “Right now we’re not getting along with Russia at all.”
Still, Tillerson’s meeting provided a blueprint for how the former Cold War foes might go about improving ties.
A main focus is Syria, where both governments want to end a civil war that has killed up to 400,000 people, contributed to a global refugee crisis and allowed the Islamic State group to emerge as a global terror threat.
The continued fighting between rebels and al-Assad’s military has complicated US efforts to defeat the militant group.
Lavrov was expected to come to Washington with a Russian plan to end the violence, after last week hashing out an agreement with Iran and Turkey.
It focuses on the creation of four “de-escalation zones.”
Critical details still need to be finalized and the US response has been cautious, with top officials such as US Secretary of Defense James Mattis saying they are still studying the concept and its various unanswered questions.
The would-be safe zones would not cover areas where the US-led coalition is fighting IS.
Despite the lack of clarity, the possibility of a meeting between Trump and Lavrov would in itself be a sign of some progress.
The Russian diplomat has not visited Washington at all since 2013, one year before Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Pensinsula.
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