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Tillerson's Visit To Moscow Does Little To Heal Rift, Clear Confusion


Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (right) and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrive for a news conference following their talks in Moscow on April 12.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's visit to Moscow on April 12 appeared to do little to smooth relations between the two superpowers, with a clear rift remaining over a suspected chemical-weapon attack in Syria and confusion over the direction of U.S. foreign policy.

After the highest-level face-to-face talks between the two under President Donald Trump's administration, officials said both sides cautiously backed efforts to improve ties that were at "an all-time low."

But blaring headlines and analysts' comments from around the world suggested there was little common ground when Tillerson met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and then President Vladimir Putin.

Under the headline Tillerson And Putin Find Little More Than Disagreement In Meeting, The New York Times wrote that the two men appeared unable even to agree on the facts surrounding the alleged chemical-weapon attack in Syria last week that prompted Trump to order U.S. forces to fire 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at an air base in that war-torn country.

"Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's trip to Moscow on Wednesday was further evidence of how low Russian-American relations have sunk," the Times' editorial board wrote in a commentary. "One important question is whether the chill in the relationship will make it harder for Mr. Trump to engage Moscow in the struggle to defeat the [militant group] Islamic State in Syria; cooperation on that front, always questionable, now seems impossible."

Tillerson's trip to Moscow on Wednesday was further evidence of how low Russian-American relations have sunk.

There was no indication that the two sides changed their positions on the issue of Syria, which triggered a spate of mutual rebukes in the run-up to -- and during -- Tillerson's visit.

Tillerson said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government had carried out more than 50 chemical attacks throughout the six-year war in Syria, and that the Syrian leader could face charges of war crimes.

Lavrov, meanwhile, described the U.S. missile strike as an "unlawful attack against Syria" and said such actions must be prevented going forward.

Even Trump himself sounded less convinced of the prospects for improved relations between Washington and the Kremlin. He expressed hope on improved ties with Putin, but quickly added, "We're going to see what happens."

"The sides had been conducting themselves as if they owed each other," Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Center was quoted as saying by The Guardian newspaper. "Now no one is acting like anyone owes anything."

Russia Unsure What U.S. Will Do

Many analysts argued that the strikes in Syria represented a U-turn in U.S. policy that has taken not only the Russians but much of the world off guard.

This role reversal, according to Mark Galeotti of the Institute for International Relations in Prague, has confused Moscow, which used to feel as though it knew the course that U.S. foreign policy was following.

They're suddenly now finding themselves in a very reacting role. They honestly don't know what to do.

"Up to this point, they [the Russians] had already relied on the fact that they could play the role of the unpredictable one because they felt, with considerable grounds, that they had identified the real red lines of U.S. policy and they knew what the Americans would do in response," Galeotti said.

"They're suddenly now finding themselves in a very reacting role. They honestly don't know what to do."

Further muddling the outlook, Trump said later on April 12 that NATO was now doing more to fight terrorism and was "no longer obsolete," a shift from previous statements that the security alliance no longer served a purpose and a move that is sure to antagonize Russia.

"In Putin's eyes, we are an out-of-control hyperpower that must be opposed," Michael O'Hanlon, a senior foreign-policy fellow at the Brookings Institute, wrote in the Los Angeles Times. "His view is warped, but it appears to be sincere."

Trump could try to deescalate tensions with a broad agreement between NATO states, Moscow, and the neutral countries of Europe whereby NATO would vow not to expand further, O'Hanlon wrote.

Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director and a senior fellow with the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, suggested that a lack of predictability in U.S. foreign policy under the Trump administration is exacerbating the deteriorating level of trust between the countries and could lead to deeper problems.

"Of course, there's also the in-some-ways-more-existential issue of the fact that a direct clash between the U.S. and Russia could be extremely dangerous, given the military -- specifically nuclear -- capabilities of both sides," he said on The World Today radio show.

"And while I don't think that that kind of a clash is likely, it's certainly something that has to be lingering in the minds of anybody who is looking at the relationship."

In the background is the disappointed retreat of Russia's euphoric reception of Donald Trump's election victory.

Trump's November 8 election victory was followed by expectations of a rapprochement between the two countries, given the Republican nominee's praise for Putin during the election campaign.

Since then, a series of issues ranging from U.S. investigations into alleged Russian meddling in the campaign to the Syria bombing have altered the political landscape.

"In the background is the disappointed retreat of Russia's euphoric reception of Donald Trump's election victory. It brought expectations of a relationship reset, perhaps a grand bargain that would lead to lifting the sanctions imposed over Moscow's intervention in Ukraine," wrote BBC State Department correspondent Barbara Plett Usher.

"Trump's top officials eventually burst that bubble."

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