Tillerson’s Mission to Moscow Just Got a Lot More Complicated

  • Secretary of state brings tough message after Syria attack
  • Russia likely to give top U.S. diplomat a tongue-lashing

The Political Impact of U.S. Military Strikes on Syria

After enduring weeks of criticism that he’s been silent and sidelined in the Trump administration, Rex Tillerson travels to Moscow newly emboldened by the U.S. decision to drop 59 Tomahawk missiles on an airbase in Syria.

The secretary of state is likely to face a tongue-lashing over the attack Wednesday from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and from President Vladimir Putin, unless the Russian leader snubs the American visitor by declining to grant him an audience.

Tillerson on April 6.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

But Tillerson will arrive strengthened by President Donald Trump’s demonstration that he’s willing to use force abroad, despite his past talk of avoiding foreign entanglements as part of his “America First” approach -- and that he’s willing to rile Putin despite campaign talk of forging a new relationship.

“It’s going to be an atmosphere that will be much different than what the Russians had anticipated,” said Fred Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “They had great expectations that the U.S. was ready to move in their direction. If rapprochement in the Russian mind meant closer cooperation on Syria, terrorism, easing of sanctions on Ukraine -- that’s just not in the cards.”

The U.S. says it saw a duty to retaliate after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime used chemical weapons in an April 4 attack that killed dozens of people in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. Russia, Assad’s ally in his country’s long-running civil war, has questioned the evidence that the regime was behind the attack and called the U.S. response a dangerous violation of international law.

Read about the risks for Trump in Syria’s tragic war -- a QuickTake

“This is not a breakdown yet, but this is a very serious obstacle for normalization of Russia-U.S. relations,” Frants Klintsevich, the deputy head of the defense and security committee in the upper house of Russia’s parliament, said in an interview. “It will require a serious explanation.”

Tillerson’s Moscow visit will test the goodwill he accrued there when he negotiated oil deals as chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp. Putin awarded Tillerson the country’s Order of Friendship -- a civilian honor given to foreign nationals who advance relations with Russia and its people -- in 2013.

Finding His Voice

The secretary of state’s trip started Monday with a two-day meeting of G-7 foreign ministers in Lucca, Italy. Ministers there called an emergency meeting for Tuesday to discuss Syria along with diplomats from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other nations. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Monday in Lucca that Russia can either “stick like glue” to the Assad regime or work with other nations to find a solution for Syria.

Read more about Western leaders seeking a Syria message for Russia.

The Moscow meeting comes as the often taciturn Tillerson -- who seldom spoke publicly in his first two months in office -- is finding his voice in foreign policy.

The Texan spoke for the president repeatedly last week about the airstrikes and about Trump’s meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida. Tillerson, 65, also made the rounds of Sunday morning talk shows for the first time, as did Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser. Also appearing was United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who’s been a far more outspoken figure than Tillerson until now.

Along the way, Tillerson delivered a mixed message to Russia of immediate condemnation combined with the prospect for eventual cooperation. Tillerson blamed Russia for having failed to perform as guarantor of a deal struck during President Barack Obama’s administration to remove Assad’s chemical weapons from the country.

“Clearly, Russia has failed in its responsibility to deliver on that commitment from 2013,” he told reporters in Florida last week. “So either Russia has been complicit, or Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement.”

Tillerson says Russia should reconsider Assad support.

Source: Bloomberg

A State Department official, who asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the matter, said Tillerson used the tough language to make sure Russia knew it was responsible for the Syria problem, and that now is the time to fix it.

Defeating Terrorists

In an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that aired Sunday, Tillerson said the U.S. priority remains defeating Islamic State terrorists, rather than forcing Assad out of power. “I think the president has been quite clear: First and foremost, we must defeat ISIS,” he said, using the U.S.’s preferred acronym for the group.

After that, he said, “we can navigate a political outcome in which the Syrian people, in fact, will determine Bashar al-Assad’s fate.”

Alexei Pushkov, a committee chairman in Russia’s upper house of parliament, denounced Tillerson’s weekend broadside against Russia, saying on Twitter that the statements “cross the red line of all norms and decency.” He added later, “Tillerson says fighting ISIS remains the U.S. priority in Syria, but you get the impression that the U.S. priority now is pressuring Russia.”

The increasingly tense U.S.-Russia relations that Tillerson must navigate area far cry from Trump’s predictions as a candidate that he could forge new deals with Putin. Even before the airstrikes in Syria, that prospect had been put in doubt by the investigations into Russia’s hacking in the 2016 presidential campaign and the finding by U.S. intelligence agencies that the actions were intended to help Trump win.

Real about the twists and questions in the Trump-Russia saga -- a QuickTake Q&A

A meeting with Tillerson isn’t on Putin’s schedule yet, though the Kremlin doesn’t announce such events in advance, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call Monday. Putin met Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, on each of his last four visits to Russia during the past two years, even amid tensions over the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said after the airbase attack that the “last traces of pre-election fog have lifted” on the prospects for a joint fight against terrorism by the U.S. and Russia. Some Russian insiders always doubted that such a new era of cooperation would emerge.

“The Kremlin is relieved now -- there’s finally clarity,” said Alexander Baunov, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “And now, during Tillerson’s visit, there will be real talk about real problems.”

— With assistance by Elena Mazneva, and John Follain

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