Russian FM warned on election meddling but invited by Trump

Washington (AFP) –


President Donald Trump's administration on Tuesday warned Russia of reprisals if it meddles in next year's election but drew new controversy by inviting its foreign minister to the White House.

On the very day that House Democrats unveiled impeachment charges against Trump, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov paid his first visit to Washington in more than two years where he sought to find areas of cooperation including through business initiatives.

But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, while voicing hope for more productive ties, made clear that the two powers had plenty of disagreements and warned Lavrov about interference in the 2020 election.

"The Trump administration will always work to protect the integrity of our elections, period," Pompeo told a joint news conference.

"Should Russia or any foreign actor take steps to undermine our democratic processes, we will take action in response."

US intelligence found that Russia, among other steps, manipulated social media to sway the 2016 election in Trump's favor.

The mogul turned president has instead promoted a conspiracy theory, roundly rejected by US intelligence, that it was not Russia but its rival Ukraine that meddled in the US election.

Lavrov seized on the idea, saying that purported Ukrainian meddling "allows us to understand the absurdity of the accusations against us."

"We have highlighted once again that all speculations about our alleged interference in domestic processes in the United States are baseless," Lavrov said.

Pompeo, a stalwart ally of Trump who has entertained his views on Ukrainian influence, stood firm that "our Russian counterparts" interfered in 2016.

"We don't think there's any mistake about what really transpired there," Pompeo said.

Trump is facing impeachment after the White House delayed nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine, which is battling Russian-backed separatists, as he pressed Kiev to investigate the election theory and to dig up dirt on his domestic rival Joe Biden.

- Criticism of White House visit -

Despite the clash over interference, Lavrov headed from talks at the State Department to the White House at the invitation of Trump, who under traditional protocol would rarely see a foreign minister.

Trump also invited Lavrov during his last visit in May 2017, when The Washington Post reported that the US leader shared with Russia classified details on a plot involving the Islamic State extremist group.

Democrats responded angrily to the latest invitation to Lavrov.

Representative Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, accused Trump of "cozying up to autocrats" and demanded a full account of the closed-door meeting.

"While dialogue with the Russians is important, especially for strategic stability and the future of arms control, I have no confidence in President Trump to defend our interests in these conversations," Engel said.

Representative Adam Schiff, who led the impeachment hearings, recalled how Trump last time reportedly bonded with Lavrov over the US president's firing of the FBI chief, who had investigated Russian election interference.

"Today, they can celebrate the success of Russian propaganda," Schiff said, in apparent reference to the Ukrainian meddling theory.

- Firm on Ukraine -

Pompeo vowed not to budge on Ukraine, saying that the United States would defend its sovereignty.

"I reiterated that Crimea belongs to Ukraine," Pompeo said.

The talks in Washington come a day after Putin held a landmark first meeting with Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, although they did not reach any breakthrough.

The pair met in Paris alongside the presidents of France and Germany, who are leading efforts to end a five-year war in which Ukraine is battling Russian-backed separatists.

Lavrov in turn called for the quick renewal, even by the end of the year, of the New Start treaty, the last remaining major arms treaty between the United States and Russia.

"The ball is in our American partners' court," Lavrov said.

Negotiated under Trump's predecessor Barack Obama, the treaty which expires in February 2021 obligated the two powers to halve their arsenals of strategic nuclear missile launchers.

The Trump administration, while not ruling out an extension, wants a new treaty to include China, which has a quickly growing, but still much smaller, arsenal than Russia and the United States.

The United States earlier this year withdrew from the Cold War-era Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces, which limited missiles that could hit European cities, after saying that Moscow was in violation.