Highlights of Tillerson’s Visit to Moscow

 

Bottom-line: Overall no breakthrough, but some positive signals: The sides agreed to establish a working group for bilateral contacts that may involve not only diplomats, but also military, and Putin expressed readiness to resume participation in the agreement that the sides signed when Obama was still president and that focused on preventing air accidents between U.S/allies and Russian warplanes in Syria, if sides agree on targeting ISIS and AQ (am hopeful that deal’d be revived – I called for that in preview of Tillerson’s visit for Russia Matters. Both Tillerson and Lavrov claimed to have refrained from discussing sanctions and kept mum on when Putin and Trump might meet.

Background: In the absence of a major breakthrough even Putin’s decision to meet Tillerson can be interpreted as a good news. The Kremlin purposefully kept it unclear for some time whether Putin would host Tillerson. Moreover, Putin – who is notorious for being late for meetings – didn’t keep Tillerson waiting. It is also worth noting that Tillerson chose not to heed U.S. Congressmen’s calls to meet representatives of the Russian opposition in a clear effort not to further irritate the Kremlin.

  1. Preparation fire ahead of the meetings:
  1. U.S. side:

 

  • Trump:
    • In interview aired on 04.12.17:
      • U.S. is “not going into Syria.”
      • “Putin is backing a person that’s truly an evil person. And I think it’s very bad for Russia.  I think it’s very bad for mankind.  It’s very bad for this world,” he said. (Washington Post, 04.12.17, Washington Post, 04.12.17)
      • “What I did should have been done by the Obama Administration a long time before I did it, and you would have had a much better — I think Syria would be a lot better off right now than it has been,” Trump said. “[Assad] was going to be overthrown. I thought he was gone. He had another week. I mean he was finished. He had nothing, nothing. And then Russia came in and saved him. And then Obama made one of the worst deals in history with the Iran deal. So you really have Iran, and you have Russia, and you have Assad.” (Washington Post, 04.12.17)
    • Tillerson
      • On 04.11.17 (at G7 meeting):
        • Russia must abandon its support of Assad’s regime if it wants an “important role” in discussions about Syria’s future.” “We hope that the Russian government concludes that they have aligned themselves with an unreliable partner in Bashar al-Assad.” In what was in effect an ultimatum, he said Moscow must calculate the costs of remaining an ally of Assad, the Iranians and Lebanon’s Shiite militia Hezbollah. “Is that a long term alliance that serves Russia’s interests?” he told reporters. “Or would Russia prefer to realign with the United States, with other Western countries and Middle East countries that are seeking to resolve the Syrian crisis?” (Bloomberg, 04.11.17,Washington Post, 04.11.17)
        • “I think it is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end. But the question of how that ends, and the transition itself could be very important, in our view, to the durability, the stability inside of a unified Syria.” (New York Times, 04.11.17)
  • S. probe of the CW attack in Syria:
    • Syrian Su-22 aircraft taking off from Shayrat airfield delivered the nerve agent sarin, (Reuters, 04.12.17)
    • WH document: evidence clearly showed Syria was behind a chemical attack on civilians this month and accused Russia of trying to cover up for its ally, Bashar al-Assad, by spreading disinformation. “The United States is confident that the Syrian Regime conducted a chemical weapons attack, using the nerve agent sarin, against its own people.”(Bloomberg, 04.12.17)
    • Mattis on 04.11.17: the Pentagon is investigating whether Russia played any role in last week’s deadly chemical attack in Syria, but has determined thus far only that the Syrian government orchestrated it. While some U.S. officials have said they believe Russia played a role, Mattis said the United States is not involved. Tensions between the United States and Russia will not “spiral out of control,” he said. (RFE/RL,11.17, Reuters, 04.12.17)
    • Senior U.S. official: The United States has concluded that Russia knew ahead of time that Syria would launch a chemical weapons attack last week. The senior official said Monday that a drone operated by Russians was flying over a hospital as victims of the attack were rushing to get treatment. Hours after the drone left, a Russian-made fighter jet bombed the hospital in what American officials believe was an attempt to cover up the usage of chemical weapons. (AP, 04.11.17)
  1. Russian side:

 

  • Putin:
    • On 04.11.17: Russia has information that the United States was planning to launch new missile strikes on Syria, and that there were plans to fake chemicals weapons attacks there. “We’ve seen all this before,” Putin, describing the chemical attack as “a provocation.” Putin said the Syrian events remind of the run-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which Russia opposed and which Putin said led to the collapse of the country and a surge in terrorism. (Bloomberg, 04.11.17, Reuters, 04.11.17)
    • In interview aired on 04.12.17:
      • S.-Russian relations had worsened during Donald Trump’s presidency. “It can be said that the level of trust at the working level, especially at the military level, has not become better but most likely has degraded,” Putin said in an interview on Russian state television channel, Mir. (CBS, 04.12.17)
      • Putin said there were two main explanations for the incident in Idlib province: that Syrian government air strikes had hit rebel chemical weapons stocks, releasing poisonous gas, or that the incident was a set-up designed to discredit the Syrian government. (Reuters, 04.12.17)
  • Lavrov
    • Plans to discuss the fight against terrorism and the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan and Ukraine with Tillerson, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said. The situation in North Korea, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and arms control are also on the agenda, it said (Reuters, 04.07.17, Bloomberg, 04.05.17)
    • Lavrov said Russia was extremely worried the United States might decide to unilaterally attack North Korea. (Reuters, 04.11.17)
  • Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov:
    • The rhetoric used by the United States as “primitive and loutish.” (NBC, 04.12.17)
    • Russia has “absolute reliable information” that Syria’s jets struck chemical weapons controlled by terrorists. (Bloomberg, 04.12.17)
  • MFA spokesperson Zakharova on what was effectively Tillerson’s call for Russia to calculate the costs of remaining an ally of Assad, the Iranians and Lebanon’s Shiite militia: “I believe everyone realized a long time ago that there is no use in giving us ultimatums. This is simply counterproductive.” (Washington Post, 04.12.17)
  1. 04.12.17 meeting of Lavrov and Tillerson, which lasted some 5 hours:
  1. U.S. side:

 

  • Tillerson: ” Our meeting today comes at an important moment in the relationship so that we can further clarify areas of common objectives, areas of common interest, even when our tactical approaches may be different, and to further clarify areas of sharp difference so that we can better understand why these differences exist and what the prospects for narrowing those differences may be. And I look forward to a very open, candid, frank exchange so that we can better define the U.S.-Russia relationship from this point forward. And I thank you for hosting these important meetings today, and I look forward to a very wide-ranging discussion on a number of important topics.” (Department of State, 04.12.17)
  1. Russian side:

 

  • Lavrov:
    • “More than once, we have reaffirmed our readiness for a constructive and equal dialogue and cooperation based on respect for the legitimate interests of the other. This has been our consistent policy that is fully in keeping with international law and does not depend on the current political climate or a false choice, such as “you are either with us or against us.” (Department of State, 04.12.17)
    • “I will be frank, we have a lot of questions regarding very ambiguous and contradictory ideas on the international agenda in Washington. And I’d like to say, apart from words, we saw some very alarming actions regarding the unlawful attack in Syria.” (Washington Post, 04.12.17)
    • “Your visit is very timely, it provides a much needed opportunity in order to, as Russian and Russian president Putin and US president Trump have agreed, frankly and honestly try to clarify the prospects for cooperation on all these issues, primarily on the formation of a broad antiterrorist front.” (Newsru, 04.12.17)

III. 04.12.17 meeting of Putin with Tillerson and Lavrov, which lasted 1 hour and 40 minutes:

 

  1. U.S. side

Tillerson: Meeting with Putin was “very productive.” “Relations at low point… there is a low level of trust. World’s two nuclear super powers cannot have such a relationship.”

  1. Russian side:

Lavrov: The Russian president “confirmed readiness” to resume Russia’s participation in implementation of the US-Russian deconfliction agreement, which Russia suspended in the wake of the U.S. cruise missile attack on Assad’s Shayrat air base, if goals of fighting ISIS and AQ are confirmed by U,S, according to Lavrov. (RT live broadcast, 04.17.17)

  • No public statements released after the actual meeting.

 

  1. 04.12.17 Lavrov-Tillerson press conference:

 

  1. U.S. side

Tillerson

  • General relationship:
    • We agreed to establish a working group to stabilize the relationship.
    • There has to be a higher-level communications between US and Russia both in diplomatic and military spheres.
    • We need to put an end to this steady deterioration of the relationship.
    • Did not discuss sanctions.
  • Cyber:
    • In answer to questions on how do Russia’s actions in cyberspace differ from that of others: We only touched upon briefly on the issue of cyber security… but I do make distinction when cyber tools are used with internal decisions of a country of how elections are conducted – that’s different from cyber espionage. Interference in the elections has been fairly well established.
  • Syria
    • We both believe in a unified and peaceful Syria.
    • No evidence that Russia was involved in the CW attack.
    • We discussed at great length Assad’s fate. Our view is that the reign of Assad is coming to an end. Russia, as its closest ally in the conflict, should help Assad realize this reality. Assad’s departure needs to occur in an orderly way. No role for Assad in the future of Syria. Assad may be charged with war crimes as more evidence is gathered.
  • Korea:
    • We agree that N. Korea has to be denuclearized.
  • Ukraine:
    • Russia can make progress in implementation Minsk-2 by deescalating violence, withdrawal of weapons. Until full progress is made in Minsk-2, it will remain an obstacle.

 

  1. Russian side

 

Lavrov:

  • General relationship:
    • We agreed to designate DoS and MFA envoys to consider what irritants have accumulated in our relations in the recent years. (Didn’t say at what level).
    • Russia is open for a dialogue with U.S….and even joint actions on common interests.
    • We have not touched upon the issue of reviving the bilateral presidential commission set up by Obama and Medvedev and then suspended by Obama over Ukraine.
  • Arms control:
    • We agreed to overcome the pause in the bilateral arms control and strategic stability. We hope contacts in that sphere are resumed (no references to INF).
  • Cyber:
    • We discussed abuse of cyberspace and modern communications technologies. We are both interested in fighting cybercrimes.
  • Syria:
    • Our common objective remains destruction of ISIS and AQ. We discussed the CW attack in Syria and subsequent U.S. cruise missile attack. We spoke about the need to investigate this incident within the framework of Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and… We saw readiness on the part of our American counterparts to support such an investigation.
    • Refused to say what Russia would do if investigation proves Assad was behind use of CW.
    • I don’t think we have irreconcilable difference with US on Syria or Ukraine.
  • North Korea:
    • Russia is very alarmed by the confrontational spiral around North Korea.
  • Ukraine:
    • We have a unified position that Minsk-2 needs to be implemented. We also recalled (the Surkov-Nuland) format contacts on Ukraine and we would welcome resumption of that format.
  • Other:
    • We also discussed Libya, Afghanistan.
    • Businesses on both sides are interested in expanding economic ties (no references to sanctions.)

(Source for the press conference: RT live broadcast, 04.17.17.)

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