Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov over the course of his two day visit to Washington gave a lengthy news conference in which he provided some information concerning his talks with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and US President Donald Trump.
Lavrov’s mood at the news conference was upbeat, and this reflects the Russian media’s overall view of the talks. There is no euphoria and Lavrov himself said that the task of repairing US-Russian relations is a huge one. However he placed the blame for their present wretched state firmly on the previous Obama administration
We discussed the state of our bilateral relations, which is not encouraging. We are well aware why relations are where they are now. Unfortunately, previous US administration did everything to undermine the foundations of our relations. Now, we have to work almost from the ground up. We perfectly understand that Russian and US citizens want to live in peace and be able to interact normally. I think that the politicians should make sure that all artificial obstacles that lie in our way should be removed.
In this respect Lavrov made a pointed contrast in the differing personalities of the foreign teams of the Trump and Obama administrations
The dialogue between Russia and the US is now free from the ideology that characterised it under the Barack Obama Administration. US President Donald Trump, his Administration, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are the kind of people who want to maintain a dialogue not as a means of demonstrating what they can achieve in the area of ideological preferences, but rather as a means of solving particular issues which have great bearing on the nation’s progress, peoples’ well-being and settling conflicts in different areas.
The key difference is that Trump and Tillerson are former businessmen, whereas Obama’s team was made up heavily of lawyers and academics (Obama of course was both). Unsurprisingly the lawyers and academics are far more ideological than the business people. There is no doubt which of the two Lavrov prefers.
It is always better for relations when people do business rather than try to promote their ideological preferences or engage in propaganda. This forms the basis for our expectations.
Lavrov admitted that the actual results of the meeting were modest. Given the early stage of the dialogue between Russia and the Trump administration, it could not be otherwise.
However two interesting facts came out of Lavrov’s visit.
The first is that the concept of de-escalation zones in Syria stems from an idea Tillerson took with him when he came to Moscow in April. Lavrov was quite clear about this
As to Syria, we first of all focused on the ideas that had been discussed during Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow when he shared his thoughts regarding de-escalation and safety. This was the initiative US President Donald Trump mentioned during his telephone conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Secretary of State Tillerson later presented it in more detail in Moscow. The initiative is now being materialised in agreements concluded in Astana, where four de-escalation zones were proposed, including in the south, since the USA is particularly interested in stabilising the situation on Syria’s borders with Jordan and Israel. We are ready to cooperate on the issue…….
Question: You have mentioned Russia’s interest in US involvement in the creation of de-escalation zones in Syria. Can you provide more details on this? Did President Trump or Secretary Tillerson say that the United States would cooperate with Russia, one way or another, to create these zones?
Sergey Lavrov: To begin with, the idea was initiated by US officials – President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. We used the Astana venue to promote its practical implementation. We will welcome any US contribution. This issue must be entrusted to those who are dealing with the situation on the ground professionally, and who have the information. We can facilitate this process both in Astana and in Geneva. We have reached an agreement that we, as active participants in the common efforts towards a Syrian settlement, should maintain these contacts with the other key players, primarily regional countries.
In other words at the very time that Britain’s clownish Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was trying to mobilize the G7 to threaten Russia with sanctions and was calling off his visit to Moscow supposedly in order to make it possible for Tillerson to present to the Russians with an ultimatum demanding they agree to get President Assad to go and commit to pulling their troops out of Syria, Tillerson was actually going to Moscow with a completely different proposal to de-escalate the conflict there.
As to the fate of President Assad, Lavrov made it perfectly clear that the Russian position in relation to him is unchanged
Someone asked me about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In Iraq and Libya, the international community did its utmost to overthrow Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. We can see what this has resulted in. As regards the settlement of the Syrian crisis, let us draw conclusions from our past mistakes and opt not for replacing the leader but for rooting out the evil of terrorism. President Donald Trump has reaffirmed today that the main goal for the United States in Syria is to defeat terrorism. We fully agree on this.
As for Russia quitting Syria, Lavrov was equally clear and rather crisper
We don’t have an exit strategy. All of us must fulfil our agreements, as UN Security Council resolutions say. Agreements must be honoured and terrorism must be rooted out in Syria, which must not become a seat of extremism and instability as it happened in Iraq and Libya.
(bold italics added)
Indeed with hindsight the negotiations between Tillerson and the Russians both in Moscow and Washington have gone so completely differently from what Boris Johnson expected that the unavoidable conclusion has to be that Tillerson decided it would be wiser not to take Boris Johnson into his confidence. There can be no more withering testimony to the low regard in which Boris Johnson is held than that.
In any event it is now clear that for the first time since the start of the Syrian crisis the US and Russia are genuinely starting to coordinate their positions in Syria, though it is far too early to say that they are actually working together. The difference between the negotiations the Russians are having with Tillerson and the abortive negotiations they had previously with Tillerson’s predecessor Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry, is that Tillerson unlike Kerry seems to have the President’s unequivocal support backing. Whether this will be enough to lead to a peace settlement in Syria remains to be seen.
The other interesting fact that came out of Lavrov’s visit is that the Russians seem to have genuine hopes of regaining possession of the diplomatic premises the Obama administration seized in its last days under the pretext of the Russiagate scandal. This is what Lavrov had to say about that
Sanctions are a unilateral action against us, and so resolving that is not our problem.
The issue of state property holds a special place in our talks. Property rights are affirmed by legal documents issued in the USA. The Obama Administration in its last days in power resorted to petty actions against both our property and our diplomats who were ordered to leave the United States within twenty-four hours. Everyone, in particular the Trump Administration, is aware that those actions were illegal. When those decisions were announced, the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin said that we are completely entitled to respond reciprocally. The US side knows what that would look like. Yet we are not going to follow those who are trying to destroy our relations. Our US colleagues know about our stance. I hope we will be able to resolve the situation without our relations deteriorating.
The Russians must know that at the present time, with the Russiagate scandal still on fire, it is politically impossible for the Trump administration to return this property irrespective of whether or not its seizure by the Obama administration was illegal. It is difficult to avoid the impression that the Russians are bringing this issue up in order to emphasize the utter falsity of the claims of interference in the US election which have been made against them, and as a marker that they will want this property returned when the falsity of these charges is finally proved.