Top US and Russian diplomats meet, make no visible progress

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MOSCOW (AP) — Senior diplomats from the United States and Russia met in Helsinki on Wednesday to search for ways to ease tensions between Moscow and Washington, but didn’t report any immediate progress, with Venezuela a sticking point.

The U.S. State Department said that Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov “discussed U.S.-Russia relations and the impact of regional challenges in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.”

“The Under Secretary stressed that while the United States seeks to narrow differences and foster cooperation with Russia on a number of global challenges, Russia’s negative actions continue to be a barrier for progress in our bilateral relationship,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.

Ryabkov said he and Hale discussed the situation in Venezuela among other issues during Wednesday’s meeting, but failed to reach common ground. He emphasized that Russia doesn’t have any troops in Venezuela, but periodically has to send experts there and sees no need to discuss it with Washington.

Russia has staunchly supported Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, while the U.S. and several dozen other nations have cast their support behind opposition leader Juan Guaidó and recognized him as Venezuela’s interim president, asserting that Maduro’s re-election last year was illegitimate.

Moscow has said that its military experts have traveled to Venezuela to help it maintain weapons supplied by Russia under previous contracts and accused Washington of overblowing the issue.

“We understand the U.S. desire to exaggerate this factor for political goals and present it as a reason to maintain its tough course toward Maduro’s government,” Ryabkov said, according to RIA Novosti. “It’s unacceptable for us.”

Ryabkov said that he and Hale also discussed the case of Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who has been in custody since his arrest in Moscow in December on charges of espionage. He added that Moscow is not considering exchanging him for Russians in U.S. custody.

Whelan, who also holds British, Irish and Canadian citizenship, has denied the charges and complained of poor prison conditions.

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