Russia and the US struck a conciliatory tone on key points of disagreement on April 12 when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made his first official visit to Moscow. The visit came at a time of rock-bottom relations after a chemical weapons attack in Syria and retaliatory strikes ordered by the White House.
After long consultations and a further two-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Tillerson and Lavrov told a news conference that they had discussed the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, tensions on the Korean peninsular, cybercrime and other issues that have dogged bilateral ties through the presidency of Barack Obama and remain unresolved after Donald Trump’s election last November.
The sides were dealing with “timebombs inherited from the previous administration”, Lavrov told a press briefing, but were stressing a shared pragmatic approach to the whole gamut of issues.
“There is a low level of trust between our two countries,” Tillerson said in turn. “The world’s foremost nuclear powers cannot have this relationship,” he added, stressing the need to “put an end to the steady degradation” of relations.
With Syria dominating the talks, the sides agreed on the need for an unbiased investigation into the April 4 chemical weapons attack that killed around 80 people in a rebel-held area of Syria’s Idlib province.
However, Tillerson said that although there was no evidence of Russian complicity in the gassing of civilians, Washington had no doubt that Moscow’s ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad authorised the strike. The incident drew a series of punitive US cruise missile strikes on a nearby Syrian airbase. Russia backs Damascus’ claims that the chemicals were released from a militant facility during a government air strike.
While Lavrov refused to be drawn on the possible fate of Assad if an investigation finds his government conducted the chemical attack, Tillerson was unequivocal that “the rein of Assad and his family is coming to an end” and that war crimes charges could be brought against him at some point in the future.
Both heads of diplomacy said they did not discuss the possibility of further sanctions being imposed on Russia for its support of Assad. European G7 foreign ministers did not support British calls for enlarging the sanctions against Russia at a meeting on April 11.
They also emphasised common ground in areas such as fighting terrorism, with Lavrov noting that ousting Assad from power could leave Islamic State “victorious” in Syria. “We should be guided by common sense and not by emotions,” he said at the close of the briefing.
The Moscow talks held special significance in signposting the likely course of relations under Trump, who has blown hot and cold on Russia during his presidential campaign and since his election, but signalled that he wants a new and pragmatic relationship with Moscow.
Before the talks, Tillerson expressed hope for a “very open, candid frank exchange so that we can better define the US-Russian relationship from this point forward”.
Hours before the Moscow talks began, both sides also drew their respective lines on some key issues: Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reiterated Moscow’s continued support for Assad, while Tillerson telephoned Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on April 11 to reiterate US support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the fulfillment of the Minsk Accords to end the conflict in East Ukraine.
The US secretary of state also stressed that no trades would be conducted with Russia to resolve the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, and that the sanctions should be maintained until Ukraine’s territorial integrity is fully restored.