Tillerson in Moscow: What is the Future of US-Russia Relations Under Trump?

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Danielle Ryan, Journalist

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov this week in Moscow did little to heal the rift that has been widening between the two powers for some time.

Both the American and Russian leaders this week gave frank assessments of the state of relations. Vladimir Putin bemoaned the fact that relations between Moscow and Washington had actually deteriorated further since Donald Trump took office, while Trump himself admitted in an interview that relations were indeed at an “all-time low”.

Expectations of a grand détente have been quickly slipping away since Trump took office in January. With the US bombing of a Syrian airfield last week — in response to the alleged (but unproven) use of chemical weapons by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad — the bubble has finally burst.

That chemical weapons incident (and the subsequent bombing of Shayrat airfield) was the focus of talks between Tillerson and Lavrov in Moscow. Both men, during a joint press conference after talks, spoke positively of the potential for cooperation in a number of areas, but, as ever, great intentions often don’t always pan out in reality. The men also spoke of a “low level of trust” between the two nations. “The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship,” Tillerson said.

Where does Europe stand?

Tillerson’s visit came shortly after UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson had cancelled his own trip to Moscow for the second time — seemingly at the behest of the White House. Then, while Tillerson was in Moscow, Vladimir Safronkov, Russia’s representative at the UN launched a withering verbal attack on his British counterpart Matthew Rycroft.

He accused the UK of working to “hamper” any progress that the US and Russia might make to resolve the crisis in Syria. “You lose sleep over the fact that we might work together with the US. You are scared, and you do everything to undermine it,” he said.

Luckily, the fiery exchange is unlikely to seriously harm efforts to solve the Syrian crisis because the UK has become increasingly irrelevant in terms of its impact on diplomacy and world events. A few crossed words with the UK envoy at the UN is not going to do any irreparable damage.

It was an interesting exchange, though, because it begs the question: Does Europe really want to see an improvement in relations between the US and Russia? The natural answer is of course that ‘Europe’ can’t be spoken of as an entity with one opinion on relations with Russia.

There are some EU member states, notably the ones that have been most outspoken against sanctions on Russia (like Hungary, Slovakia, Cyprus and Greece), that would be happy to see a thawing in the chilly relationship, while others, like the UK and the Baltics, have seemed comfortable with taking a more combative approach toward Russia. But Brussels likes to speak with a voice of ‘unity’ and very often those calling for better relations get drowned out.

Ultimately, the stance Brussels takes on Russia will likely continue to be dictated by Washington. No serious change can be expected in European policy toward Russia without approval from the White House.

The future with Trump

To some extent, you could say that the Kremlin was comfortable with Barack Obama in office. The relationship wasn’t what anyone could describe as “good” but over eight years, Russia learned what to expect from Obama and didn’t regard him as a loose cannon. Trump, on the other hand, is still a mystery to Moscow and his unpredictability is surely causing a headache for the Kremlin.

Events this week will have further worried Moscow. On Thursday, the US, for the first time, dropped the GBU-43 bomb — the largest non-nuclear bomb ever used by the US military — into Afghanistan to strike ISIS. A few hours later news broke that Trump may be willing to launch a pre-emptive strike on North Korea if Pyongyang decides to test another nuclear bomb. The two events appear to be linked and timed to send message from Trump to North Korea: We have the weapons and the political will to use them. The obvious capacity for escalation in tensions under a seemingly trigger-happy Trump is worrisome.

Putin wants predictability from the US. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has conveyed this message more than once. Yet Trump prides himself on being unpredictable, particularly when it comes to the military. He has said this publicly numerous times. Trump tweeted Thursday to say that the relationship between the two countries will “work out fine” and that everyone will eventually “come to their senses”. But if we look at recent official statements, it appears what Trump really means is that everything will be fine if Moscow learns to follow Washington’s lead.

This expectation that Moscow will suddenly change course to suit US interests, while ignoring its own, is the same mistake Obama made with Russia for eight years.

 

Photo: Aleksandr Shcherbak/TASS

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