You might have expected the first press conference in Moscow featuring both a Trump administration official and a Russian official to be something of a victory lap. After all, Trump was Russia’s preferred candidate in the 2016 election; he had promised to realign US foreign policy to work with Moscow. He even picked Rex Tillerson, an oil magnate and a man to whom Vladimir Putin personally awarded a Russian state medal, to be secretary of state.
But you’d be wrong. Secretary Tillerson’s Wednesday afternoon press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was a tense, awkward affair at which the two men barely acknowledged each other — and spent much of their speaking time taking shots at each other’s countries.
Tillerson, who came into the meeting after a nearly two-hour face-to-face meeting with Putin himself, called on Bashar al-Assad, Russia’s ally in Syria, to step down. He said the Russian interference in the US election was a “serious issue, one serious enough to attract additional sanctions” — even though the goal of said Russian interference had been to help his boss get elected.
Lavrov, for his part, accused the United States of secretly sympathizing with al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters in Syria. He described statements on Russia by unnamed US senators as “hysterical.” He went on a lengthy tirade listing previous US efforts to oust dictators, all of which he described as failures. "There was another dictator, Saddam Hussein, who was hanged. I think we know how that invasion went,” Lavrov said.
Clearly, the Trump-Russia relationship is not going as planned.
The most obvious reason why is the US attack on a Syrian airbase after Assad’s regime used chemical weapons last week. The Russians do not like it, to put it mildly, when the United States attacks their client.
But the truth is that the tension started well before last week’s bombing, and speaks to broader disappointments Moscow has with American foreign policy under Trump. Putin seems to be experiencing an intense case of buyer’s remorse, and nothing Tillerson did during his Moscow trip seems to have done anything to change that.
The Trump administration hasn’t been what Putin wanted
If you look at the Trump administration’s record on Russia-related issues, even prior to the attack on the Syrian airbase, there haven’t been any meaningful shifts away from American policies that Moscow dislikes:
- Sanctions on Russia resulting from its invasion of Ukraine remain in place, as do sanctions put in place by the Obama administration in response to Russian interference in the US election. At Wednesday’s press conference, Tillerson said he had "discussed no change in the status of sanctions” during his meetings with Putin or Lavrov.
- US troops are still stationed in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. In fact, Trump has ordered 900 new US troops to go to Poland as part of a NATO mission explicitly designed to deter Russian military adventurism.
- The US hasn’t reduced its military or financial commitment to NATO.
“There has been very little interaction between the administration and Russia,” Ivo Daalder, former US ambassador to NATO and current president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, told me last month. “There is no deviation from the line that existed prior to January 20.”
The Syria bombing, of course, pushed the US and Russia even further apart. The one area where it looked like the Trump administration and Russia agreed — the status of Bashar al-Assad — has become a key point of conflict, with Trump administration officials like Tillerson, who had previously suggested Assad could stay, changing their tune after the strikes.
It’s easy to see why this is happening: Trump’s staff, with the possible exception of Tillerson, are all Russia hawks.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis is a Russia hawk who took a hard line on Russia in his confirmation hearing. So did Tillerson, who said he would maintain Russia sanctions despite his long history of doing business in that country while employed by Exxon Mobil.
Vice President Mike Pence famously undercut Trump’s line on Russia in the vice presidential debate, and traveled to Europe while in office to reassure NATO allies of America’s commitment to the alliance. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley gave a fiery speech at the UN Security Council condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea, vowing that “our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine."
Because Trump is so uninterested in policy detail and day-to-day management, these deputies are left to determine what the US’s Russia policy should be and use their own powers to make that a reality.
“I don’t think there is currently a Russia policy,” Mark Galeotti, a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague, tells me. “What that means is, in the void, we have in effect multiple Russia policies.”
And then when we got to an actual crisis where Trump had to weigh in, he chose an option sure to displease Moscow. Whatever this is, it’s not the kind of pro-Russian revolution in US foreign policy that Trump was promising during the campaign.
No wonder it seems like Tillerson didn’t make any progress in Moscow. The new administration is just not shaping up to be what Putin wanted.