Rex Tillerson’s Kinda-Sorta Detente in Moscow

After a week of trading barbs, the Trump administration and the Kremlin agreed on one thing Wednesday: not to let things get any worse.


MOSCOW – The days preceding his visit were marked by bluster and barbed comments. But when U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson finally arrived in the Russian capital on Wednesday, he struck a conciliatory tone, and was given a tentative – if tepid — welcome.

The former chief executive of Exxon Mobil is no stranger to Moscow, but this was his first stay as head diplomat of the United States, and the first visit to Moscow by a member of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration. The visit came amid a swift and severe deterioration in U.S.-Russian ties, but Tillerson still managed to obtain a two-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a signal of the Kremlin’s openness to détente, in addition to his sit-down with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The status of the meeting with Putin was uncertain, having disappeared and re-appeared on official schedules over the last few days.

Tensions between Washington and Moscow had increased sharply in the days leading up to the meeting, after a tumultuous week that saw the U.S. conduct a surprise missile strike against the forces of Russian ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in retaliation for what Washington believes was Assad’s use of banned chemical weapons against civilians. The United States even went so far as to accuse Russia of covering up the attack on Assad’s behalf, a day before the scheduled visit.

On Wednesday, both Tillerson and Lavrov expressed a desire to improve relations between the two countries, even as they continued to clash on the question of who was to blame for the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Russia has claimed those weapons belonged to rebel forces, and on Wednesday, Lavrov maintained that the circumstances of the most recent attack have yet to be determined. But in a reversal from earlier this week, Tillerson appeared to walk back previous claims of Russian complicity at a press conference following the meeting: “Assad has brought (this) upon himself,” he said, adding that the U.S. has no “firm information” that Russia was involved in any way in the chemical weapons attack.

“We understand each other better,” Lavrov said. Tillerson said that while “there is a low level of trust between our countries… The world’s two most foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.”

The two also announced new measures intended to prevent things from getting worse: Moscow and Washington will set up a working group designed to improve their relationship, Lavrov said, and Putin has agreed to restore a bilateral U.S.-Russia safety agreement over Syrian skies, which Moscow announced it had suspended in the wake of the missile strike. “Tillerson had serious dialogue in Moscow that can help start dealing with issues. A useful first step,” tweeted Dmitri Trenin, director of Moscow’s Carnegie Center.

The shifting terms of the U.S. relationship with Russia have come under particular scrutiny during the first few months of the Trump administration. On the campaign trail, Trump pledged to improve relations with Russia – only to see his plans torpedoed by a combination of suspicions over Russian interference in the U.S. election on Trump’s behalf, and speedy clashes between the U.S. and Russia on the issue of Syria and the fate of Assad.

Syria dominated the agenda on Wednesday. The country was discussed “extensively” during the meetings, Tillerson said, and during the press conference, added that the U.S. held Russia accountable for dealing with its ally responsibly. “Our view is that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end,” Tillerson said, repeating what he had told reporters in Italy a day earlier. This time, however, he added: “(Russia) perhaps has the best means of helping Assad recognize this reality… We do think it’s important that Assad’s departure is done in an orderly way.”

Lavrov, whose government surprised the West last week when Putin’s spokesman said support for the Assad regime was “not unconditional”, said Moscow was not placing its hopes on any individual in Syria, including Assad. But he ruled out toppling the Syrian government, comparing that option to U.S. actions against Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya; both interventions ended in the grisly public deaths of the former leaders, and in what has widely been considered chaos in their countries.

Lavrov, who is scheduled to meet his Iranian and Syrian counterparts this Saturday in Moscow, reiterated the Russian line, saying that the future of Syria must be decided by Syrians themselves, No Syria deals can be made without Iran, a long-time Russia ally and staunch supporter of the Assad regime. There was little mention of Ukraine during Wednesday’s press conference, though Tillerson said that U.S. sanctions on Russia – imposed over Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine – will remain in place. Tillerson also broke with his predecessors’ tradition of meeting members of Russia’s civil society; it wasn’t clear whether the snub was intended as an overture to Putin, or a genuine lack of interest by the Trump administration. Trump later praised Tillerson for doing a “terrific job” in Moscow, even though relations between the two countries possibly being “at an all-time low”.

Despite the high stakes and heightened scrutiny, there were some aspects of Wednesday’s visit that seemed almost playful. The Russian Foreign Ministry released a video earlier that day voicing its “hope for productive talks” which featured pictures of a mountain landscape, and was set to the soundtrack of the love song ‘The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face.’

Four years ago, when he was Exxon Mobil’s chief executive, Tillerson left Moscow with a prestigious medal pinned to his lapel and a hearty handshake from Putin. This time around, there would be no such honors – only promises to work toward better relations, which is likely to prove challenging for a diplomatic novice. As if to underscore the point, at the same time that Tillerson and Lavrov were holding their press conference, Russia vetoed the latest version of a draft resolution at the United Nations to condemn the Syrian government for its role in the attack.

Photo credit: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

Amie Ferris-Rotman is Foreign Policy's Moscow correspondent.

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