The Cable

While Moscow Mocks Trump, Tillerson Tries to Repair U.S.-Russia Ties

Vladimir Putin seems to have run out of patience with the administration.


While Russia lashes out against the United States, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has adopted a subdued tone on bilateral relations, saying on Monday that Washington wouldn’t sever ties with Moscow after the mass expulsion of U.S. diplomatic staff, and stressing that the two countries need to find ways to work together.

Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election “seriously” damaged relations between the two countries, Tillerson said, but he signaled his readiness to work with Russia. “I don’t think it is useful to just cut everything off on one single issue,” he said.

Tillerson made the remarks a day after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum in the Philippines — their first meeting since the United States slapped harsh new sanctions on Russia last week.

Election meddling “created serious mistrust between our two countries and that we simply have to find some way to deal with that,” said Tillerson, who then offered Moscow an olive branch.

“These are two very large countries and we should find places that we can work together, let’s try to work together,” he said. “Places we have our differences, we’re going to have to continue to find a way to address those.”

But Russia doesn’t seem interested in reciprocating.

Since President Donald Trump signed the sanctions bill last week, after Congress forced his hand, the mood in Moscow has become a mixture of acerbic sarcasm against Washington and nationalistic chest-beating.

First, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev channeled his inner Trump by taking the unusual step of mocking the American president on Twitter, appearing to toy with his sense of vanity. “The Trump administration has shown its total weakness by handing over executive power to Congress in the most humiliating way,” he tweeted.

Then, throughout the weekend, state-run news outlets cast Trump as “weak” and a “loser” after he signed the bill. On Sunday’s prime time state-run TV shows, Trump was mocked (commentators “analyzed” Trump as a clown emoji) and Vladimir Putin was revered.

In Russia, the leadership typically uses state media to transmit most official messages, so the anti-Trump programming appears to reflect Moscow’s growing disenchantment with a president it hoped could turn a new leaf in U.S.-Russia relations.

After Trump signed the sanctions bill, Moscow announced it was forcing the U.S. government to cut American embassy and consulate staff (many of whom are local Russian hires) by 755 by Sept. 1, as well as shutter two U.S. diplomatic properties.

The expulsion and seizures are in part a delayed reaction to events in December 2016, when, in the final days of the Barack Obama administration, the United States seized two Russian diplomatic compounds in New York and Maryland following revelations the Russian government meddled in the U.S. presidential election.

In a harsh readout of the Tillerson-Lavrov meeting on Sunday, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the sanctions bill “could jeopardize international stability and deals a powerful blow to prospects for bilateral cooperation.”

The statement warned “Russia will respond accordingly in the future,” though it added Moscow is ready to repair ties “if Washington abandons its confrontational line.”

The administration hasn’t yet announced how it would respond to its diplomats being kicked out of the country. Tillerson said Monday they would deliver a response to Moscow by Sept. 1.

That didn’t satisfy at least one key Russian lawmaker: Alexey Pushkov, the former chairman of the Russian Duma’s international affairs committee and current member of the Federation Council. “The U.S. will not rest until it has achieved a total degradation in relations,” he tweeted.

Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Correction, Aug. 8, 2017: Alexey Pushkov is the former chairman of the Russian Duma’s international affairs committee. A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to him as the current chairman.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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

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