Live Blog

Tillerson, Lavrov Press Conference in Moscow

Wednesday April 12, 2017
Welcome to TOPLive. We'll cover the Moscow news conference of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson after the pair met to discuss relations between the two countries and foreign-policy issues including Syria.

Photo: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images
Hi, I'm Jake Rudnitsky, a Moscow reporter, and I'll be leading you through tonight's briefing, which we expect to start shortly. It was only a few months ago that Russian politicians were popping champagne in parliament to celebrate President Donald Trump's victory. But after U.S. missile strikes in Syria targeted Russia's main ally in the Middle East, Vladimir Putin said today bilateral relations are even worse than under President Barack Obama.
There was much speculation and even contradictory reports in the run-up to Tillerson's visit about whether Putin would see him. In the end, after a marathon three-hour session with Lavrov, the secretary of state was whisked off to the Kremlin for the meeting, which has just ended.
Judging by Lavrov's sarcastic tone at the start of the talks, the Putin meeting wouldn't have been as friendly as when the Russian president pinned a medal of friendship on Tillerson -- then the CEO of Exxon Mobil -- in 2013.
In Tillerson's words, there are "areas of sharp difference" between Russia and the U.S. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was even more blunt in a conference call today. He said it's "quite absurd" for Washington to demand Russia abandon Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, the Kremlin's closest ally in the Middle East.
The quote that keeps popping into my mind to describe Trump's learning curve on U.S.-Russia relations is: "Who knew this could be so complicated?" Those words, of course, got Trump into a lot of trouble when he said them about repealing and replacing Obamacare. But his head-spinning changes in attitude toward Russia and Putin seem to come from the same on-the-job training experience.
Tillerson has been one of the lowest-key cabinet members, especially for a position that requires him to play global diplomat and troubleshooter in many troubled regions. Because of his experience at Exxon Mobil dealing with Russia, expectations were high that he could go toe-to-toe with Putin. But Tillerson seems to be on the same steep learning curve as his boss, Trump.
Some commentators think the shift in tone by Trump's administration of late comes from a concerted attempt to show there was no collusion with Russia during the 2016 election.
What Trump would step into with a greater role in Syria? It’s the land where the Arab Spring collided with a dictatorship determined to stay in power. Now Syria has become the Middle East’s biggest humanitarian disaster in decades.

Here's our QuickTake for some perspective.
Last night on a Russian talk show, Zakharova said foreign policy shouldn't be based on personality but on a position. The Russian establishment, which always speaks with one voice, has been shocked to witness the bickering inside the Trump administration.
Tillerson:
  • Calls Meeting With Putin `Productive'
  • U.S.-Russia Relations at a Low Point
  • U.S., Russia Discussed Improving Channels of Communication