Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at his dacha in Sochi

Sochi (Russia) (AFP) - Russia and the United States voiced hope for better ties Tuesday as President Vladimir Putin welcomed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo but tensions were laid bare in a clash over election meddling.

In a late-night encounter in Putin’s forested dacha in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Pompeo became the highest-ranking American to meet the Russian leader in 10 months.

“I would very much like your visit to Russia to benefit Russia-US relations and promote their development,” Putin told Pompeo as he took a seat across from him in a sleek conference room, saying that they should “fully restore” relations.

Putin praised a two-year investigation by US special counsel Robert Mueller, despite its findings that Russia meddled extensively in the 2016 election on behalf of then-candidate Donald Trump, especially by manipulating social media.

But the probe found that his campaign did not collude with Russia – lifting one cloud that has hung over Trump since his unexpected victory.

“Despite the exotic nature of Mr Mueller’s commission, on the whole he conducted quite an objective investigation and confirmed the absence of any collusion between the US administration and Russia,” Putin said.

Pompeo, speaking earlier at a joint news conference with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, acknowledged deep differences on election meddling – and warned Russia to stay out of next year’s vote.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, accompanied by US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman, held a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Sochi

“Interference in American elections is unacceptable. If Russia engaged in that in 2020, it would put our relationship in an even worse place than it has been,” Pompeo said.

“I conveyed that there are things that Russia can do to demonstrate that these kinds of activities are a thing of the past. I hope that Russia takes advantage of those opportunities,” he said.

Lavrov hit back against “those who are inflating this topic” and saying of collusion: “It’s clear that such insinuations are absolute fiction.”

“We want and we are ready to deal with cybersecurity issues along with our American partners, without any politicisation,” he said.

- Building on cooperation -

Pompeo nonetheless also voiced hope for a better future with Russia.

He said that his mission came from Trump, who has persistently praised Putin – a loathed figure for virtually all of the US political class.

US President Donald Trump has persistently praised Russian President Vladimir Putin

Trump, he said, wants the United States and Russia “to do everything we can” to create a future that is “more successful” for both countries and the world as a whole.

“Some of our cooperation has been excellent – on North Korea, on Afghanistan, we’ve done good work – (and) counter-terrorism work – together. These are things we can build upon,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo was the highest-ranking American to see Putin since July when the Russian leader met in Helsinki with Trump – who shocked the US establishment by seeming to take at face value Putin’s denials of election interference.

Putin’s aide Yuri Ushakov said the president and Pompeo discussed Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and the situation in North Korea, following leader Kim Jong Un’s first visit to Russia last month.

However in the 90 minutes of closed-door talks they did not touch on the Ukraine crisis and only briefly discussed sanctions imposed by Washington over Russia’s backing of separatist rebels in the country.

They equally did not touch on Michael Calvey, a prominent American investor who has been behind bars in Moscow since mid-February on controversial fraud charges, Ushakov said.

- Clash on Venezuela -

Pompeo was joined in his talks with Putin by the US ambassador to Moscow, Jon Huntsman, as well as Jim Jeffrey, the US pointman on Syria – a conflict on which Russia and the United States have been diametrically opposed.

Pompeo has meanwhile led US charges that Russia is to blame for the continued rule of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, a leftist firebrand whom Washington is seeking to oust.

Anti-government demonstrators in Caracas have called on the military to rise up against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro

“The time has come for Nicolas Maduro to go, he has brought nothing but misery to the Venezuelan people, and we hope that Russian support for Maduro will end,” Pompeo said at his joint news conference with Lavrov.

Most Latin American and European nations recognise opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president of Venezuela, whose crumbling economy has prompted millions to flee.

Ushakov said Maduro’s fate was not discussed in Tuesday’s talks with Putin.