US Secretary of State Tillerson faces bumpy ride on Moscow visit

US Secretary of State Tillerson faces bumpy ride on Moscow visit
Then ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson receives Russia's Order of Friendship from Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg in June 2013.
By bne IntelliNews April 10, 2017

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is due to make his first official visit to Russia on April 11-12 to shape Washington’s future relations with Moscow at the height of tensions over the recent US missile strikes against Russia's Syrian ally President Bashar al-Assad.

Despite the escalation of tensions between the two countries following the April 7 strikes on a Syrian government airbase by Homs, Tillerson’s visit will go ahead as planned, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova confirmed, TASS reported.

“The visit is on the agenda, so let him come and tell us about the strange things they did,” Zakharova was quoted as saying hours after the US attack. “We will also tell everything we think about this.”

The agenda of Tillerson’s two-day visit includes talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. It was not clear if he would also meet President Vladimir Putin, with whom he is personally acquainted from his days as CEO of US gas and oil company ExxonMobil.

During his visit, Tillerson is expected to try to persuade Moscow to stop supporting Assad, Britain’s Sunday Times reported on April 9, following the decision of British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to cancel his own visit to Moscow scheduled for April 10.

Coming after the April 4 chemical weapons attack that killed around 80 Syrian civilians and was widely blamed internationally on Assad's forces, the decision to call off the trip was due to “Russia’s continued defence of the Assad regime”, the UK Foreign Office said.

Meanwhile, Tillerson has accused Russia of being responsible – either directly or indirectly – for the chemical attack. “The failure related to the recent strike and the recent terrible chemical weapons attack, in large measure, was a failure on Russia’s part to achieve its commitment to the international community,” he said on ABC on April 9.

“I hope that Russia is thinking carefully about its continued alliance with Bashar al-Assad, because every time one of these horrific attacks occurs, it draws Russia closer in to some level of responsibility,” he added.

However, Russia backs the position of Damascus that the chemicals were leaked from a militant chemical weapons laboratory and were not dropped on civilians in Syria’s northwestern idlib province by government forces.

Tillerson’s visit is also expected to cast greater light on the relations sought by the new administration of President Donald Trump with Russia, an issue that has been the subject of intense scrutiny since US intelligence services said Russia had covertly interfered in last year’s US presidential elections. Tillerson has so far been one of the more cautious members of the US administration about prospects for a more cooperative relationship with Moscow.

Another senior US official said he expected the visit to clarify Moscow’s stand on a number of major issues, including the military conflict in Syria.

“Do [Russians] want it to be a relationship of competition and potential conflict?” US National Security Adviser Lieutenant General Herbert McMaster said on Fox News on April 9. “I don’t see how that’s in Russian interest. Or do they want it to be where a relationship in which we can find areas of cooperation that are in our mutual interest?”

According to McMaster, Russia “can be part of the solution or they can continue what has been really a very sophisticated campaign of subversion against Western interests and a campaign of subversion and intervention on behalf of a murderous regime in the Middle East”.