WASHINGTON: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met Wednesday with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ahead of rare Oval Office talks with Donald Trump, whose firing of his FBI chief again put the spotlight on Moscow’s alleged meddling in last year’s US election.
On Tuesday, Trump dismissed FBI Director James Comey, who was leading a probe into whether the Republican billionaire’s campaign aides colluded with Russian officials to sway the November presidential election.
After talks with Tillerson, Lavrov heads to the White House to meet Trump, whose shock sacking of Comey was seen by Democrats as an assault on an investigation that could have sweeping repercussions for his administration.
The uproar seemed certain to complicate Lavrov’s mission in search of US support for a Russian plan to create safe zones in war-wracked Syria.
“I want to welcome the foreign minister to the State Department and express my appreciation for him making the trip to Washington so that we could continue our dialogue and our exchanges that began in Moscow,” Tillerson told reporters.
Lavrov cracked a joke about Comey’s firing, answering shouted questions from reporters by saying: “Was he fired?… You’re kidding, you’re kidding!”
In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin met Wednesday with his security council to discuss US-Russian relations in the context of Lavrov’s meeting with Trump, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the RIA Novosti news agency.
Lavrov, who last set foot in Washington in August 2013, would be the highest ranking Russian official to meet with Trump since he took office.
“Just as we do, the Americans need this meeting,” he told Russian television.
Relations between the two former Cold War foes soured under former president Barack Obama over Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its unyielding support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Since March 2011, the Syrian conflict has caused more than 320,000 deaths and forced millions of refugees to flee.
Neither Washington, which backs the opposition, nor Moscow, a longtime ally of the Syrian regime, have managed to find a solution to the conflict.
Since the end of Obama’s presidency in January, the United States has gradually withdrawn from the diplomatic process, leaving Russia to take the lead.
The US was not part of a deal by Damascus backers Russia and Iran, and rebel supporter Turkey, signed last Thursday in the Kazakh capital Astana on establishing safe zones in Syria.
The agreement calls for the creation of four “de-escalation zones” to shore up a ceasefire, ban flights and allow for deliveries of humanitarian aid.
Washington has given the deal a skeptical welcome, citing concerns about Tehran’s role as a guarantor even as it expressed hope the agreement could set the stage for a later settlement.
“We will look at the proposal, see if it can work,” Pentagon chief Jim Mattis said Monday.
Several ceasefires have been agreed on since Syria’s conflict broke out in 2011, but they have failed to permanently stem the fighting.
Over the past six years, Moscow and Washington have sparred multiple times over the conflict in Syria, especially concerning Assad’s fate.
Trump’s arrival in power has not brought the former Cold War adversaries closer to seeing eye to eye — and in early April, the US even launched direct military action against the Syrian regime in retaliation for an apparent chemical attack.
Both countries have recently indicated that relations under Trump have never been so bad.
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Monday that Moscow expected “above all coming to a common understanding on the need for de-escalation in Syria.”
“If we manage to find… a common position with the United States on this issue, it will be the most important result,” Ryabkov said, quoted by the Interfax news agency.
The US State Department said that “on Syria, the secretary intends to discuss efforts to de-escalate violence, provide humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, and set the stage for a political settlement of the conflict.”
Regarding Ukraine, the State Department also said “the sides will discuss the need to stop the violence in eastern Ukraine and resolve the conflict through the full implementation of the Minsk agreements.”
After talks Wednesday, the two diplomats will again meet Thursday in Fairbanks, Alaska for the Arctic Council meeting, an intergovernmental forum for cooperation on the environment, oil and mining, shipping, fisheries and tourism.
It brings together the eight countries bordering the Arctic Ocean — Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the United States.
Tillerson and Lavrov’s meeting in Alaska comes 150 years after Washington purchased the US state from Moscow.