Russia said Sunday that the U.S. is soon sending its envoy for negotiations over unrest in eastern Ukraine to Moscow for talks about the ongoing violence.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made the announcement after an hour-plus meeting in Manila with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. It was the first high-level contact between the two countries since U.S. President Donald Trump last week reluctantly signed new sanctions into law to punish Moscow for interfering in the 2016 presidential election to help him win.
Lavrov said U.S. diplomat Kurt Volker would meet with Russia’s envoy for the Ukraine crisis, Vladislav Surkov. Volker last month visited eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Kyiv’s forces for more than three years. It is a conflict during which Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and more than 10,000 people have been killed.
There was no immediate U.S. reaction to the meeting, held on the sidelines of regional diplomatic talks. Tillerson ignored reporters’ shouted questions.
Lavrov said that despite the latest round of U.S. sanctions, “We felt that our American counterparts need to keep the dialogue open. There’s no alternative to that.”
The U.S. Congress voted overwhelmingly for the sanctions. Trump, faced with the likelihood that Congress would override a veto if he rejected the legislation, approved the sanctions measure even as he called it “significantly flawed” with “clearly unconstitutional provisions.”
Former U.S. President Barack Obama, weeks before he left office, expelled 35 Russian diplomats and closed two Russian facilities in the United States after the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally directed the election interference.
Moscow did not retaliate at the time, but with the approval of the new sanctions, Moscow ordered the U.S. to cut 755 diplomats and staff workers, many of them Russians, from its embassy and consulates in Russia. Lavrov said he explained to Tillerson how Moscow would carry out the sharp cuts in the U.S. diplomatic missions, but did not publicly disclose any details.
Trump has been largely dismissive of the investigations in Washington over the Russian election interference, calling them a “witch hunt” and an excuse by Democrats to explain his upset victory over his Democratic challenger, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Numerous congressional probes are underway, while Special Counsel Robert Mueller has opened a grand jury investigation into whether Trump campaign aides illegally colluded with Russian interests on Trump’s behalf in the election and whether Trump obstructed justice when he fired former Federal Bureau of Investigation chief James Comey, who was leading the agency’s Russia probe before Mueller took over.
In West Virginia last week, Trump told a campaign-style rally of cheering supporters, “We didn’t win because of Russia. We won because of you.”
Trump said his political opponents were “trying to cheat you out of the leadership you want with a fake story that is demeaning to all of us and most importantly, demeaning to our country and demeaning to our constitution.
“The reason why Democrats only talk about the totally made-up Russia story is because they have no message, no agenda, and no vision,” he said. “The Russia story is total fabrication. It’s just an excuse for the greatest loss in the history of American politics.”