WASHINGTON – The United States and Russia worked Monday to restore a key diplomatic channel between the two clashing nations, days before President Donald Trump planned to hold his first face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, under immense scrutiny in the U.S. over his contacts with Trump campaign associates, met in Washington with Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon for a meeting that focused partly on preparations for the highly anticipated presidential tete-a-tete. Trump and Putin are to sit down on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit taking place Friday and Saturday in Germany.
Yet Shannon and Kislyak also used their meeting to discuss the possibility of a new meeting between Shannon and Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergey Ryabkov, the State Department said, a move that would signal the two powers were again focused on trying to establish a functioning relationship. It was unclear after their lunchtime meeting if and when such a meeting would take place.
Ryabkov and Shannon had been slated to host an ongoing series of discussions aimed at addressing irritants that have thwarted efforts to get the U.S.-Russia relationship back on track. The goal was to resolve smaller issues first in hopes of restoring a base level of trust that could clear the way for broader discussions about Syria, Ukraine and other global crises. But Moscow nixed the second session last month to protest new Trump administration sanctions over Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
One of the irritants that Ryabkov and Shannon had been addressing in their talks, the closure of two Russian compounds in the U.S., rose to the surface on Monday as the Kremlin said it was losing patience with a U.S. plan to return them to Russian control. The recreational compounds — one in Maryland, one in New York — were shuttered in December by President Barack Obama in response to Russia’s meddling in the election. U.S. officials have said the compounds were also used by the Russians for intelligence-gathering in the U.S.
Putin’s foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said Russia had shown remarkable restraint by declining to retaliate for Obama’s actions, which included expelling 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S. Ushakov insisted Russia would be obliged to respond if the compounds, also known as dachas, aren’t given back, adding that Moscow’s patience “has its limits.”
Both Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have described relations with Russia as dismal. But while Trump’s meeting with Russia’s president could be a chance to move past old grievances, it’s also being closely watched by Trump’s critics for signs he’s being too soft on the former Cold War foe. The meeting comes amid an ongoing U.S. investigation into Russia’s election interference and potential Trump campaign collusion, in which Kislyak’s frequent interactions with Trump aides are a major focus.