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Washington, Moscow, and the “Ukrainian issue”

The Day’s experts on the results of the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s negotiations in Moscow
19 April, 18:23

The US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s first visit to Moscow on April 12 took place amid global tension. On the eve (and on the very day) there were messages that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin would not meet the American Secretary of State, which would be unprecedented: the occupant of the Kremlin always met the US Secretaries of State on their visits to Moscow.

Tillerson held five-hour-long talks with Lavrov and spoke with Putin for two hours. Predictably, the key theme of the Secretary of State’s negotiations in Moscow was the future of Syria’s President Bashar Assad. At the joint press conference both American and Russian foreign ministers admitted they were not able to come to agreement on the chemical attack in Syria, as well as on the US strike on Syria’s military base following that attack. “Our strikes in Syria were well grounded, they were directed against Syrian troops,” said Tillerson.

However, his Russian counterpart claimed that there was no evidence of any use of chemical weapons by Syrian troops and that it was necessary to hold an international investigation. However, an hour after the press conference, Russia’s representative to the UN blocked the UN resolution envisaging such an investigation.

Tillerson, in particular, criticized the current mutual relations between the two countries as having “a low level of trust” and said that “the world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.”

The US Secretary of State informed the journalists that the negotiators had “discussed no change in the status of sanctions that have been in place with Russia as a result of certain actions taken in Ukraine” (the Russian annexation of Crimea and military aggression in Donbas).

He also remarked that “until full progress is made under the Minsk Accords, the situation in Ukraine will remain an obstacle to improvement in relations between the US and Russia.”

Meanwhile Lavrov, who looked quite depressed during the press conference, said: “We have a single common position, and that is that the 2015 Minsk agreement should be fulfilled.” He reminded of the two-way “channel of communication” between Moscow and Washington, established under the previous US administration, and mentioned the interest of the incumbent US leadership in the “continuation of bilateral contacts” alongside with the consultations within the format of the Normandy Four. Yet the question suggests itself: why doesn’t Russia fulfill them? It will be interesting to see if it starts observing them after the visit of Tillerson, who clearly emphasized that Russia must “withdraw … heavy weapons [in Donbas], so that OSCE observers can fulfill their role.”

By the way, at the press conference the Secretary of State mentioned the existence of evidence implicating Russia in interference with the American elections, for which additional sanctions might be attracted. According to Tillerson, Moscow got a clear message concerning this issue.

British media gave unambiguous comments on the results of the US Secretary of State’s meetings with Russia’s leadership. The Times carried an article headlined “Putin ignores US call for fresh start and backs Assad regime.” Two other papers, the Financial Times and The Guardian, carried almost-identical editorials: “Tillerson says US-Russia relations at a ‘low point’” while The Daily Telegraph published a column by the conservative MP Dominic Raab headlined “We must face down the Russian bear.”

While the Financial Times called the negotiations in Moscow “open and concrete,” The Times believes that the meeting was very tense and does not hurry to rejoice at the possible US-Russia rapprochement.

This is how The New York Times assessed the results of the Secretary of State’s visit to Moscow: “At Meeting, Putin and Tillerson Find Very Little to Agree On.” The Washington Post covers the negotiations in an article headlined “Tillerson meets with Putin amid deepening tensions over U.S. missile strikes in Syria.” published an article under the headline “Rex Tillerson feels the chill in Moscow.” The newspaper remarks that the US Secretary of State “gets poked on everything from Syria to his staffing decisions on an awkward trip to Russia.”

The German information outlet Deutsche Welle has a somewhat different view of Tillerson’s visit to Moscow. “Despite a low level of trust between the two countries, first of all due to disagreement over the recent developments in Syria, the diplomacy chiefs of the US and Russia after the negotiations in Moscow signalize readiness for dialog and renewal of cooperation,” writes Deutsche Welle.


Lilia SHEVTSOVA, political writer, Russia:

“A mountain gave birth to a mouse. This is exactly the result of the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow and his talks with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin.

“Watching Tillerson and Lavrov’s joint press conference was extremely exciting; it offered much more insight into the outcome of their talks than the official communiques. Striking was the tension in the relations between the two ministers which they were unable to conceal. What a difference between the relations between Lavrov and Kerry, who considered themselves friends.

“This round of the Russia-US dialog only resulted in Putin’s agreement to resume the 2015 memorandum aimed to prevent mid-air collisions over Syria. And that is it. The rest was a ping-pong game of mutual accusations. The Kremlin denies American accusations against Assad, who launched a chemical attack against own population, and will not agree to Washington’s proposal to start a transition period towards a new political regime in Syria. Moscow says: ‘We will never give Assad up!’

“The rest has sunk in verbal mud. Both Tillerson and Lavrov must have tried to create an impression of a successful meeting. Both were anxious to offer a hope to find a way out of the new coil of relations crisis. Lavrov was more arduous: he went so far as to claim that there was a ‘great potential for the improvement of relations.’ Tillerson could not afford to indulge in such verbal jugglery and was more adequate. But he did not actually try to exacerbate the talks. Curiously enough, he did not come to Moscow with evidence, which America claims to have, of Assad gassing his own people. Nor did he produce evidence of Russia’s interference in the US elections. Probably, not to irritate the Kremlin. As a result, at the press conference Lavrov could allow himself to claim that no one had produced any evidence of Assad’s involvement in the chemical attack or our involvement in the cyber attack during the elections in the US. So he can be considered winner in the verbal duel with Tillerson.

“America has seen for itself that Moscow is not going to make any concessions on Syria. At the same time, the Kremlin is prepared to negotiate with the US about a new world order, without giving up its own vision of this order. But will Trump have enough patience for these talks?”


Steven PIFER, Director of the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at Brookings Institution, former US Ambassador to Ukraine:

“Secretary of State Tillerson’s visit to Moscow was not the visit that President Putin and the Kremlin were hoping for after Donald Trump’s election in November. Kremlin officials wanted President Trump to move to improve relations without first asking that Russia correct some of its egregious actions, including its aggression against Ukraine. Those actions have brought West-Russia relations to their lowest point in 25 years. The use of chemical weapons by Syria, Russia’s client state, and the US response set a difficult background for the visit and ensured that Syria would overshadow all other questions on the agenda. Tillerson apparently said the situation in Ukraine remains an obstacle to better US-Russia relations in that Moscow must first change its policy if it wants to move back to a more normal relationship. As for the Tillerson meeting with Putin, it was always going to happen. The suggestion that there might not be a meeting was simply a piece of typical Kremlin political theater, much in the same way that Putin regularly shows up hours late for scheduled meetings. It’s rude behavior, but the Russian leadership somehow thinks it gives them an advantage. The Tillerson visit was unlikely to produce any breakthrough. It does appear that the Secretary of State and his Russian interlocutors agreed to set communication channels to tackle tough problems. That makes sense, but improving US-Russian relations will take hard work.”

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