White House national security adviser John Bolton said he warned Moscow in talks in Geneva on August 23 that the United States "wouldn't tolerate meddling” in the upcoming midterm elections.
Bolton said he also discussed with Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of President Vladimir Putin's Security Council, a “series of steps” that would lead to removing Iran's military presence in Syria.
Both Bolton and Patrushev spoke to reporters after the meeting, the first official bilateral talks since Putin’s summit with U.S. President Donald Trump last month, and they said there would be no joint declaration because Russia opposed U.S. insistence that language be inserted on Russian election meddling.
“I made it clear [to Patrushev] we wouldn’t tolerate [election] meddling in 2018 and we were prepared to take necessary steps to prevent it from happening,” Bolton told reporters.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russian operatives targeted the presidential campaign in 2016 with a hacking and social-media disinformation campaign to try to tilt the election in Trump's favor and that they were likely to do so again in the November midterm vote.
Moscow has denied the accusations, but Washington has imposed a series of sanctions and expelled a number of Russian diplomats in response to the election interference.
Besides Russia’s election meddling, relations between Moscow and Washington have deteriorated to a post-Cold War low over issues including Russia's seizure of Crimea in 2014 and its role in wars in Syria and eastern Ukraine.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on August 23 charged that Washington's "destructive" approach to ties with Moscow is responsible for impeding bilateral cooperation.
Lavrov made the assertion in a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, according to Russia's Foreign Ministry.
Bolton said his discussions with Patrushev covered “the whole range of issues that the two countries have on nonproliferation, on arms control, on a range of bilateral issues, counterterrorism, illegal immigration, cyber-related issues, regional issues, like Syria, the broader Middle East, Afghanistan, and Ukraine."
On Syria, he urged Moscow to help end Iran’s military presence in the war-ravaged country.
"Our objective is that all Iranian forces return to Iran, and that would be an objective that I think President Putin would share," Bolton said, adding that they "talked about a variety of ways in which it might be accomplished through a series of steps."
Iran, along with Russia, has given President Bashar al-Assad crucial support throughout the Syrian seven-year conflict, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and uprooted millions since it began with a government crackdown on protesters in March 2011.
The United States supports rebels fighting against Assad’s government.
Bolton said Patrushev reiterated Moscow's suggestion that, in exchange for restrictions on Iranian troops' geographic movements in Syria, the United States end its oil embargo against Iran.
"That was a suggestion that we rejected before, and we rejected it again today," Bolton said.
Before the Geneva meeting, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters that the U.S. insistence on the withdrawal of Iranian forces is a "reflection of the dominating aspiration in Washington to dictate to everyone else their own beliefs about what is good and what is bad."
Russian state-run TASS news agency quoted Ryabkov, who participated in the talks with Bolton, as saying Washington is "drunk with narcissism."
Patrushev told reporters, without being specific, that no accusations were brought against Moscow during the talks but that the two sides discussed Syria, Ukraine, cybersecurity, and nuclear issues.
He added that he had invited U.S. officials to Russia for a new round of talks but said no agreement had been reached on the timing for another meeting with Bolton.
He said agreement had been reached to reopen communications channels between the U.S. and Russian defense and foreign ministries, as well as military chiefs of staff.
Several tense issues separate Moscow and Washington, in addition to the conflict in Syria and election meddling.
The United States and European Union have imposed a series of sanctions on Russia for its seizure and illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in March 2014 and its support for separatists fighting against Ukrainian government forces in eastern Ukraine in a conflict that has killed more than 10,300 people since April 204.
Bolton and Patrushev said Ukraine was discussed, but they did not immediately provide details.
The United States has also joined Britain and other allies in imposing sanctions and expelling diplomats after concluding that Moscow was responsible for the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in England in May. Russia denies involvement in the chemical weapon attack.
U.S. President Donald Trump has spoken often of improving ties with the Kremlin, saying it was the best way to solve a number of global conflicts.
But even his July 16 face-to-face meeting with Putin in Helsinki failed to turn relations around, with the Trump administration continuing to impose new sanctions against Russia.