Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to meet with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

Sochi (Russia) (AFP) - Moscow and Washington’s top diplomats said Tuesday it was time to build better ties, ahead of the highest-level bilateral talks in nearly a year as President Vladimir Putin hosts Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

US President Donald Trump’s top diplomat arrived in the sunny Black Sea resort of Sochi amid a raft of disagreements, from arms control to the raging Venezuela and Iran crises.

Pompeo’s visit to Russia – his first as Secretary of State – came as tensions mounted in the Gulf, with Iran and the United States engaged in a new war of words over Tehran’s nuclear deal.

At the start of talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and before a planned evening meeting with Putin, Pompeo expressed hope the two rivals could “stabilise the relationship”.

“I am here today because President Trump is committed to improving this relationship,” he said.

“We have differences – each country will protect its own interests and look after its own people – but it’s not that we have to be adversaries on every issue.”

Lavrov said bilateral ties were in a “sorry state” and Russia was ready to turn the page over.

“I believe it’s time to start building a new, more responsible and constructive model of mutual perception of each other,” he said.

“We understand that a lot of suspicions and biases have accumulated on both sides. We win nothing from this.”

Pompeo was all smiles and addressed Lavrov by his first name as they sat down for talks at a marble-floored spa hotel in the wooded outskirts of Sochi.

Lavrov and Pompeo, each joined by a half-dozen aides, met for an hour and a half, according to a US official, before continuing the conversation over a late lunch.

- ‘Don’t hold your breath’ -

Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said the high-profile talks would change little in the US-Russia standoff.

“Don’t hold your breath: no pivot in sight, no breakthrough in offing,” he tweeted.

Trump met with Putin in Helsinki in July

Pompeo is the highest-ranking US official to see Putin since last July, when Trump met him in Helsinki.

Trump at the time stunned the US political establishment by appearing to accept the Russian leader’s statement that he did not meddle in the US election, contrary to US intelligence evaluations.

Ahead of the negotiations Putin toured a top military flight test centre in southern Russia and inspected a new nuclear-capable hypersonic missile dubbed Kinzhal (Dagger).

Putin’s plane was accompanied by six fighter jets as he approached the city of Akhtubinsk, according to footage released by Russian media.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied the display of military muscle was designed to send a message to the Americans.

At a meeting Monday, Putin also tasked his top brass with developing defences against hypersonic weapons.

- Hosts of differences -

Washington and Moscow are at loggerheads on an array of urgent strategic questions, including Iran, Venezuela, Syria and Ukraine.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives at the EU headquarters in Brussels for talks on Iran

Peskov slammed what he called Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran, saying it would only drive Tehran into a corner.

Pompeo cancelled a stop in Moscow on Monday to instead have a meeting in Brussels with European ministers, who have been uncomfortable with the hawkish direction of the United States on Iran.

Washington has pulled out of the nuclear deal which was backed by the Europeans, Russia and China and slapped sweeping sanctions on Tehran.

The United States has ramped up the pressure by deploying to the region an aircraft carrier strike group and nuclear-capable bombers.

The renewed diplomacy between Moscow and Washington follows a long-awaited report by investigator Robert Mueller.

He found that Russia interfered in the 2016 election but that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow.

The United States and Russia hope to make some progress on arms control. Moscow is seeking a five-year extension of the New START treaty, which is set to expire in 2021.

The Trump administration this year pulled out of another key arms control agreement, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, with NATO allies saying a Russian missile system was in violation.

Last year Putin revealed a new generation of “invincible” nuclear weapons and warned of a new arms race if America pulled out of weapons treaties.

Venezuela is also expected to feature on the agenda.

The United States has been trying for more than three months to topple Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Pompeo has repeatedly blamed Russia for giving him a lifeline.

- ‘Slaying dissidents’ -

The US president’s enthusiasm for courting Putin has little support in Washington.

The US administration has kept up a campaign of pressure including sanctions on Russia over alleged election meddling and Moscow’s support for armed separatists in Ukraine.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met on the sidelines of the Arctic Council meeting in Finland

Pompeo, despite his close relationship with Trump, left little doubt where he stood in remarks Saturday in California.

“We can see now 30 years on, after the end of the Cold War, that the Putin regime slays dissidents in cold blood and invades its neighbours,” Pompeo said.