Just how awkward was Rex Tillerson’s first trip to Moscow as secretary of state? Very.
Russia’s foreign minister publicly warned Washington’s top diplomat against any further U.S. military strikes on the Syrian regime, questioned Tillerson’s respect for history and even chided him for not filling State Department jobs quickly enough. And Russian President Vladimir Putin kept him waiting for hours before finally agreeing to see him.
“There is a low level of trust between our two countries,” Tillerson told reporters, in one of Wednesday’s biggest understatements. “The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.”
Under U.S. President Donald Trump, they weren’t supposed to.
Just days ago, the Trump administration was still counting on improving U.S. relations with Russia, to the point that officials, including Tillerson, appeared ready to cede Syria’s fate to the Kremlin’s wishes. But Syrian President Bashar Assad’s suspected use of chemical weapons last week, and Trump’s decision to retaliate with a missile strike, have dramatically altered the calculus. What could have been a Tillerson-led bridge-building mission turned into a diplomatic staredown that ended with neither side budging on anything significant.
For Tillerson, the moment was extra strange. During his years as CEO of ExxonMobil, he aggressively pursued oil and gas exploration in Russia, and developed good relations with Putin, even receiving a friendship award from him.
Tillerson met with Putin for roughly two hours, a meeting the Russians agreed to at the last moment. It’s not unusual for the Russian president to keep his decision on whether to meet a foreign leader under wraps, or even to keep that person waiting for hours. But it seemed like a snub considering he’s known Tillerson for years and this was Tillerson’s first visit to Russia as secretary of state.
Back in Washington, after largely staying quiet on the subject in recent days, Trump weighed in Wednesday on Russia’s role in Syria, questioning Putin’s support for the “evil” Assad in an interview with Fox Business News. In a news conference later, Trump said it was “possible” the Kremlin knew Assad was planning last week’s chemical attack, though Tillerson said there was no evidence of that yet. But Trump also reiterated his longstanding belief that working with Russia was still a worthy goal. “It would be a fantastic thing if we got along with Putin and if we got along with Russia,” Trump said.
Putin, meanwhile, shelled out some fresh disdain for America, telling the Mir TV channel that, under Trump, “trust at the working level, especially at the military level, hasn’t gotten better; rather, it’s deteriorated.” And, as if to ding the U.S. further, Russia vetoed a U.N. resolution condemning the chemical attack in Syria and announced it had invited the Syrian and Iranian foreign ministers to visit Moscow later this week.
Tillerson, who has been raising his profile in recent days, seemed to take the developments in stride.
During a news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the laconic secretary of state held firm to U.S. conclusions that Assad was behind the April 4 gass attack that killed dozens in Syria’s Idlib province. He said there was no place for Assad or Assad’s relatives in a future Syrian government, although he cast the timing of Assad’s farewell as a matter of negotiations.
“That the recent chemical weapons attack carried out in Syria was planned, it was directed and executed by Syrian regime forces and we’re quite confident of that,” Tillerson said. “It’s important that Assad’s departure is done in an orderly way so that certain interests and constituencies that he represents feel they have been represented at the negotiating table for a political solution.”
Lavrov, in acerbic tones during the news conference and an earlier appearance before reporters, held firm to Russia’s views: that there’s no proof the Syrian regime was behind the gas attack; that the U.S. missile strike on a Syrian military airfield was illegal and must not be repeated; and that an independent investigation was required to establish what happened. Lavrov also repeated Russian assertions that rebel forces trying to oust Assad have their own stockpiles of chemical weapons.
“With regard to the use of chemicals in the territory controlled by the opposition, on numerous occasions the Syrian government and the Syrian servicemen have given us absolute evidence about the use of chemical weapons. This was not some kind of distant information but information from the site,” the Russian foreign minister said.
There were some small signs of progress toward greater cooperation. The Russians said they would resume coordinating with the United States on the “de-confliction” channel that prevents the two nations’ respective aircraft from colliding over Syria. Both sides reiterated that they are committed to battling terrorist organizations in Syria and beyond. There also was an agreement to establish new channels to work through what Lavrov called “irritants” in the relationship and that Tillerson described as unspecified “smaller issues.”
Tillerson has in recent days blasted Russia for incompetence or complicity in the Syrian chemical attack, saying Moscow was not living up to the terms of a 2013 deal to help eliminate Assad’s stockpile of such weapons. But when pressed Wednesday, Tillerson said the U.S. had “no firm information to indicate that there was any involvement by Russia” in the specific attack on Idlib.
Russia, along with Iran, has been militarily backing Assad, whose fight with rebels trying to oust him has killed around half a million people since 2011. Under the presidency of Barack Obama, the United States staged military action against the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria, but it avoided attacking the Assad regime. Trump’s decision to launch a missile strike against a Syrian regime air base to respond to the chemical attack came after Obama resisted similar calls to punish Assad for using toxic agents.
Lavrov did seem to offer the new U.S. administration a twisted olive branch of sorts when he blamed the Obama administration for leaving behind “time bombs” in the soured U.S.-Russia relationship.
But he also took multiple digs at Tillerson, as well as the United States — bringing up the ghosts of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and other dictators whose falls led to instability. At one point, Lavrov suggested the U.S. is avoiding striking non-Islamic State terrorist groups in Syria, such as the Al-Nusra Front, because it wants those elements to “trigger plan B and try to overturn the regime of Assad.”
“We talked today about the history and Rex said that he was a new man and he’s not interested so much in history,” the veteran Russian diplomat said. “He wants to deal with today’s problems, but the world is constructed in a way that if we don’t look at the past, we can’t deal with the present.”
Ahead of his meeting with Tillerson, Lavrov called Trump’s foreign policy contradictory and said it isn’t easy to figure out what the United States wants because Tillerson has yet to fill numerous empty positions at the State Department.
The Russian and U.S. teams discussed a range of issues beyond Syria, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but there were no major public shifts in the two countries’ positions. Asked whether the discussions included allegations that Russia tried to interfere in the 2016 U.S. elections, Tillerson said it came up “briefly” in the context of cybersecurity and that the two sides would talk more about it in the future.
Much of Russia’s loud dissent over the U.S. missile strike on Syria may be political posturing aimed at appeasing domestic audiences. Putin has long projected himself as a steely strongman willing to stand up to an arrogant United States, and he may be trying to bolster that image following recent protests that hinted at unhappiness with his rule.
But Russia specialists say Putin isn’t especially fond of Assad, even as he considers Russia’s geostrategic interest in Syria of vital importance. So behind the scenes, it’s likely that both sides set aside the theatrics for a pragmatic and direct conversation, if not necessarily a friendly one. Putin’s decision to meet with Tillerson also may have been a recognition that Moscow cannot entirely cut off relations with the United States.
The Trump administration’s escalating fight with Putin also may help the Republican president politically. U.S. federal authorities are investigating whether the suspected Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election helped Trump, and whether any of his aides played a role. Trump’s willingness to attack Assad and anger Russia has, in a sense, given him some anti-Kremlin credibility amid those probes.
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