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Tillerson and Lavrov meet in Bonn

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Whilst the meeting between the leaders of the US and Russian militaries – Dunford and Gerasimov – took place away from the spotlight in Baku, Azerbaijan, the world media’s attention was focused on the meeting between Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Bonn.

This is despite the fact that it was the Dunford-Gerasimov meeting which at this stage was the more important.  That point has not just been made by me.  It has also been made by one of Russia’s leading international affairs analysts, Dmitry Suslov, Program Director of the Valdai International Discussion Club’s foundation.  In an interview with the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta he is reported to have said the following

De facto, the thawing of Russian-US relations is already underway, and the primarily indication of this is the meeting between the Russian and US chiefs of general staff. But it is also important to have a thaw in relations at the level of department and division chiefs in the Foreign Ministries. It is also important to restore dialogue in a whole range of relations

Suslov’s comment highlights an issue which even some in the Western media have touched on.

At this early stage in the Trump administration – with a comprehensive clear out of Obama administration holdovers from the State Department still underway – Tillerson still does not have a full team behind him.  Apparently he travelled to Bonn with only a small number of aides and broke precedent by insisting that the media be excluded even from the first part of his meeting with Lavrov, where the two ministers traditionally exchange pleasantries with each other before getting down to business.

That is a strong sign that Tillerson did not feel fully briefed before the meeting, and did not want to be caught by the media saying something to Lavrov that might have been reported in a way that might have caused him embarrassment.   It also presumably explains why no-one in the State Department made sure to book for Tillerson a proper hotel room, obliging him to stay in a sanatorium instead.

Further illustrating Tillerson’s lack of preparation for the meeting was his refusal after the meeting to answer journalists’ question.  Instead he read out a brief and uninformative statement, which had obviously been prepared in advance.  The statement reads as follows

So I want to make a very brief statement. Foreign Minister Lavrov and I had a productive meeting and we discussed a range of issues of mutual concern.

As I made clear in my Senate confirmation hearing, the United States will consider working with Russia where we can find areas of practical cooperation that will benefit the American people.

Where we do not see eye to eye, the United States will stand up for the interests and values of America and her allies. As we search for new common ground, we expect Russia to honor its commitment to the Minsk agreements and work to de-escalate the violence in the Ukraine.

Thank you very much.

What all this means is that Tillerson was – as a State Department official is reported to have said – “in listening mode”, not just in his meeting with Lavrov, but in all the other meetings he held with other foreign ministers in Bonn.

This fact highlights a key difference between the two most senior officials in the new administration: Tillerson and Mattis.  One of the reasons why Mattis appears so dominant at this early stage in the new administration is because as a highly regarded former Marine General he has the support of the Joints Chiefs of Staff so that his take over of the Pentagon has been practically seamless.  That means that he has a fully functioning team behind him, which Tillerson for the moment does not.

As Tillerson brings more of his people in that will change.  Until that point comes – which realistically may be weeks or even months away – Tillerson is right to listen rather than take the initiative in taking diplomatic action which would not be properly prepared.  The Russians are fully aware of this, as confirmed by Lavrov’s comments following the meeting

The entire Obama team at the US State Department left the place at their own initiative, as they stated. Now there are some career diplomats left there, with no bosses. Rex Tillerson, as a new person in this field, is now plunging into the details of the problems [we’ll] have to work on. I’m sure that this process will be completed fairly quickly.  But the key deputies have not been appointed yet, and the key areas of the foreign policy haven’t been mapped out either

In the meantime on Ukraine and other subjects Tillerson is flying on automatic pilot, which means doing the same thing as Nikki Haley did in her over-reported speech at the UN Security Council, which is recite without conviction or blame the mantras left over from the Obama administration, which for the moment are still formal US policy.

I have already discussed Nikki Haley’s speech and why it does not bear the weight some are placing on it.  I would add that just as Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s UN ambassador, took Nikki Haley’s comments about Ukraine in his stride, so did Lavrov in relation to Tillerson’s comments about Ukraine, brushing them off in a single sentence

…..the US team that will deal with Ukraine has not been formed yet

One point I would make – and where I disagree with the common view (including Suslov’s) – is that the belief that General Flynn was the prime advocate and point man within the Trump administration for better relations with Russia is in my opinion completely wrong.

That view is based on one fact, which is that General Flynn gave a (paid for) speech at an RT function in Moscow in 2015 – after the Obama administration had sacked him from his previous job – which led to him attending a public dinner which President Putin also attended.  That is a thin reason to see in him any sort of friend of Russia’s.  As it happens Flynn is on the record as saying very little about Russia, and I don’t think he thinks or cares about it very much.  The main focus of his obsession is and always has been Iran.

By contrast Tillerson’s dealings with the Russians have been extensive and – unlike Flynn – he not only has previous experience of dealing with the Russians but has also had one to one meetings with President Putin.

It is to Tillerson not Flynn that President Trump has been looking to lay the groundwork for the improvement of relations with Russia that he says he wants.  Trump confirmed as much in his press conference yesterday

If we could get along with Russia, that’s a positive thing. We have a very talented man, Rex Tillerson, who’s going to be meeting with them shortly and I told him. I said “I know politically it’s probably not good for me.” The greatest thing I could do is shoot that ship that’s 30 miles off shore right out of the water.  Everyone in this country’s going to say “oh, it’s so great.” That’s not great. That’s not great. I would love to be able to get along with Russia. Now, you’ve had a lot of presidents that haven’t taken that tack. Look where we are now. Look where we are now. So, if I can — now, I love to negotiate things, I do it really well, and all that stuff.

Whether Tillerson will in the end live up to Trump’s expectations, and whether Trump will be able to gain the political space he needs to do the deal with the Russians he says he wants, is another matter.  But at least the talking has begun.

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Alexander Mercouris
Editor-in-Chief atThe Duran.

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