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An Optimist’s Guide to Tillerson’s Moscow Visit

An Optimist’s Guide to Tillerson’s Moscow Visit

All eyes are on Moscow this week as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson prepares to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday, following Friday’s U.S. airstrikes in Syria. After President Donald Trump’s sudden change of heart on the utility of striking Syrian military installations to punish and/or deter the use of chemical weapons (something he vigorously opposed during the Barack Obama presidency), the Russian side will try to use the meeting to better understand U.S. intentions in Syria and other key global hotspots.

Inside the Kremlin, there is much worry that Trump’s isolationist campaign rhetoric is now giving way to interventionism, and fear that the new U.S. administration may not stick to the script of pursuing an accommodation based on spheres of interest. For the United States, the meeting is a crucial opportunity to set the tone for the U.S.-Russia relationship going forward and to telegraph intentions and expectations — not just regarding Syria, but also with regard to Russia’s attacks on U.S. democratic institutions, Ukraine, North Korea, and on arms control.

This week’s meeting is highly unlikely to generate any agreements, not only because there is nothing to agree on right now, but also because important deals in Russia are made by President Vladimir Putin dealing directly with his counterparts, not foreign ministers. (A meeting with Putin is not currently on Tillerson’s agenda, though it would be perfectly in keeping with Putin’s character to beckon the U.S. secretary of state at the last minute for a late-night Kremlin tête-à-tête, and then keep him waiting for a few hours to show the rookie diplomat who’s really boss).

For Tillerson, the discussion with Lavrov (and Putin, if it happens) must be used to communicate firmness, resolve, and principled positions on the core issues. Any equivocation or talk of “needing” Russia to solve global problems will be interpreted as a sign of U.S. weakness to be probed and exposed. In his press appearance with Lavrov, Tillerson should be prepared to speak plainly about disagreements and avoid his mistake in China of regurgitating his host’s talking points, for example by repeating Lavrov’s well-worn refrain on the need for “equality,” “mutual respect,” and “indivisible security.” Tillerson should of course treat his counterpart with the utmost personal respect, but must also be direct, firm, and unapologetic. He must avoid using the term “mutual respect” for a country that just defended a chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians, and which interprets the phrase to mean respect for mutual spheres of influence. In the event that Lavrov disrespects Tillerson by reverting to his habit of lobbying for visas for shady Russian oligarchs or special treatment for Russian convicts in the United States, a polite “Sergei, please don’t waste my time” will do just fine.

The first issue on the agenda will certainly be Syria. Tillerson should ask Lavrov directly how it came to pass that Russia’s client state stored a nerve agent at the same facility where Russian advisors were housed. Moreover, he should make clear that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s hideous gassing of civilians is not only an affront to international norms, but directly contravenes the 2013 agreement to remove and destroy all of Syria’s chemical weapons stocks, for which Russia is formally a guarantor. Tillerson’s first order of business is therefore to ensure that Russia understands the United States will not tolerate further use of such weapons (if in fact the administration is willing to back up that claim). When Lavrov inevitably tells Tillerson that Russia does not control Assad, the secretary would do well to push back and catalogue Russian military assets in Syria. If pressed by Lavrov on the possibility of cooperating against the Islamic State in Syria, Tillerson should let his host know that no such discussion is possible until Russia and its Syrian allies — including Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps — stop attacking the moderate opposition and driving them into the hands of extremists. So long as Russia keeps pouring fuel on the fire of Syria’s civil war, a joint U.S. “counterterrorism” strategy with Russia would be about as effective as a joint strategy with either Iran or Hezbollah.

On a more pragmatic note, Tillerson should indicate that the United States regrets and hopes Russia will reconsider its decision to pull out from the bilateral de-confliction channel that was established under the Obama administration to enhance the safety of U.S. and Russian forces operating in Syria. This mechanism serves as a communications channel to prevent unintended incidents from spiraling out of control, and therefore benefits both countries equally. Moscow’s decision to pull out of the channel is a naked test of U.S. resolve, particularly given the presence of sophisticated Russian air defense systems within close proximity of U.S. counter-Islamic State operations. If it has not already happened, it is likely that U.S. aircraft will be “painted” by Russian air defense radars in the coming days to probe the Pentagon’s tolerance for risk. This is a dangerous game. Tillerson must firmly tell Lavrov that the United States will not diminish its operations tempo in Syria and remind him that when Russia fired land-attack cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea over Iraq and into Syria, the United States never stopped communicating with Russia. He must also remind Lavrov that U.S. aircraft have a right to defend themselves at all times.

While in Moscow, Tillerson must not neglect to bring up Russian interference in the U.S. election. While he belongs to an administration that directly benefited from Moscow’s meddling, the secretary must resist any inclination to sweep this egregious attack on U.S. democratic institutions under the rug. He has to make clear in his public and private remarks that Russia crossed the line and inflicted lasting consequences on bilateral relations that will play out over many administrations. He should also warn Lavrov that the United States and its allies are fully on to Russia’s covert playbook of political subversion and will seek to expose any Kremlin interference in European elections later this year.

On Ukraine, Tillerson should carve out time on his agenda to signal clearly that improved relations with Russia can only be accomplished through full Russian implementation of the Minsk agreements, and that U.S. sanctions will not be lifted until the Ukrainian side of the international border is returned to Kyiv’s control. Tillerson should insist that the United States join France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine in the so-called “Normandy group” and communicate that Washington is prepared to launch a real negotiation to resolve the conflict in the Donbass directly with Moscow, not its puppets in the Donbass. Because Lavrov will not be empowered to make any decisions on Ukraine, Tillerson should avoid getting caught up in any lengthy discussion of the origins of the conflict and crisply communicate U.S. resolve to support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, including in Crimea. He must brush off any attempts by Lavrov to recast the conflict as merely local civil strife, pointing out if necessary the thousands of Russian intelligence advisors, unit commanders, and flag officers who currently serve in the Donbass. The secretary must know that if he fails to deliver a strong message of support for Ukraine, he will be signaling a lack of U.S. commitment that will have deadly consequences. In fact, if past practice is any guide, a Russian military probe in the Donbass could well happen at the same time that Tillerson is sipping tea in the Kremlin.

On North Korea, Tillerson should explain to Moscow that Russian concerns about U.S. missile defense systems in East Asia must be channeled into addressing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s nuclear ambitions. Rather than bemoaning the defensive posture that is necessitated by the North’s technological advances, Moscow would do well to work with its partner in Beijing to exert more leverage over Pyonyang.

Although the meeting will likely run long, Tillerson cannot avoid mentioning Russia’s violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which comes on top of the country’s ongoing violation (or unilateral “suspension”) of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. A succinct statement that the new administration is fully aware and confident in its knowledge that Russia is violating the INF treaty should be accompanied by a promise to apply more robust U.S. countermeasures to ensure that Russia gains no military advantage from the new missile system it is developing in contravention of the treaty. While Tillerson does not need to specify what steps the U.S. will adopt in response, he may want to consider proposing a separate, follow-up “2 + 2” meeting with Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Russian Defense Minister Shoigu to walk through in more detail the negative consequences of Russia’s deployment of a treaty-violating missile.

Finally, while in Moscow, Tillerson must make the time to meet with opposition and civil society activists at Spaso House, the residence of the U.S. ambassador. The longstanding tradition of meeting with both government and civil society representatives extends to both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state. It is particularly important today given the tidal wave of repression against Russian civil society groups over the last few years and the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, poisoning of fellow oppositionist Vladimir Kara-Murza, and nonstop harassment of other activists. Tillerson’s message of support for Russian civil society need not be controversial — after all, the rights of free expression and assembly are enshrined in Russia’s own constitution.

Photo credit: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images