The US secretary of states visit to Russia promised a push for closer ties. But air strikes mean no one is acting like anyone owes anything
A huge red carpet was rolled out on the tarmac of the Moscow airport where Rex Tillersons plane touched down, but it was unlikely Russia would similarly welcome his calls for it to stop backing Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
While the US secretary of states decision to skip a Nato summit and visit Moscow initially seemed to highlight the White Houses desire for better relations with Russia, expectations shifted after Donald Trump launched cruise missile strikes on a Syrian airbase last week, a move condemned by the Kremlin.
The days when Russian politicians talked about better relations and state television trumpeted Trump as a real man were clearly over.
As Tillerson began his meetings in Moscow on Wednesday, the question was not so much whether he could reach an agreement on Syria, but whether he could start any sort of dialogue at all. His first meeting with Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, at Februarys G20 summit in Germany began with an apparent disagreement over the presence of journalists. Their interaction seemed cold compared to the fellow feeling between Lavrov and the former US secretary of state John Kerry.
Putins spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday that a meeting with Tillerson was not on Vladimir Putins schedule for now, and the US embassy said it had no information about a potential meeting.
Putin would probably meet with Tillerson only if the sit-down with Lavrov were relatively cordial and productive, Russian analysts said.
If they remain totally opposed and are only talking about America putting forward an ultimatum, and Russia refuses, then a meeting [with Putin] is meaningless, said Alexei Makarkin, a political analyst.
The mood music before the visit was not promising. In light of the chemical attack that killed more than 70 people in Syria last week, Tillerson said on Tuesday Russia had failed to uphold its 2013 promise to destroy Assads chemical weapons, adding that Washington saw no further role for Assad as the countrys leader, a harsher line on him than it had taken before.
In response, Putin doubled down on his support for Assad, comparing western accusations that the regime was responsible for the chemical attack to the false assertions that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the US invasion in 2003. He called for a United Nations investigation into the attack, while claiming that nefarious forces were planning to again plant some substance and accuse the Syrian authorities of using [chemical weapons].
The toughest talk came from the Russian defence ministry, which vowed to boost Syrian anti-aircraft capabilities. A programme on its nationwide television channel Zvezda on Tuesday night declared that only a demonstration of force could stop Trump in Syria.
In another move likely to grate on Russia, Trump signed a treaty on Tuesday in support of Montenegro joining Nato, an alliance that Moscow sees as a top threat.
But with all the rancor comes a possibility for new dialogue, pundits said, especially since the United States had warned Russia before launching last Thursdays missile strikes, and the airbase was reportedly already functioning again the next day.
Fyodor Lukyanov, an analyst, said the strikes had given the United States a stronger bargaining position on Syria and created the preconditions for a conversation that wont be one-sided. Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Center added that realistic expectations had replaced exaggerations of privileged good relations before the meeting.
The sides had been conducting themselves as if they owed each other, he said. Now no one is acting like anyone owes anything.
In a hint that Moscow might still be willing to negotiate, the foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Tillersons statement was not an ultimatum but rather just muscle-flexing before talks. While the vice-speaker of parliament, Pyotr Tolstoy, told Interfax news agency that no breakthrough could be expected at the negotiations, he said the fact they were going ahead was a good sign, because there could have been none at all.
He warned that any attempts to adopt further sanctions against Russia wont result in anything. But such a threat was quashed on Tuesday when the G7 summit in Italy refused to back a British call for new sanctions, a small victory for Moscow.
Any agreement about Assads future was clearly off the table on Wednesday, as was an east-west partnership against the Islamic State, about which both Trump and Putin have spoken in the past. Moscows major bargaining chip the help of Russian and Syrian forces in fighting Isis was no longer good now that the Syrian army has become a military adversary of the United States, Baunov said.
But a more narrow agreement about how to avoid an accident that could escalate into direct conflict between Russia and the United States remained a possibility, if not a necessity. After the missile strikes, Russia announced it would cancel a deconfliction agreement established with the United States in 2015. However, US officials said on Friday the hotline between the two countries militaries, which is designed to avoid midair collisions between Russian jets and those of the US-led coalition, was still working. The Russian defence ministry later said this line of communications would be cut at midnight on Saturday.
Besides its air campaign, Russia has a large number of military advisers on the ground in Syria, including two soldiers who were reportedly killed in a mortar attack on Tuesday. If the United States continues missile strikes against Syrian government positions, Russian troops would be at risk.
Theres a chance to agree on technical issues about how to separate [forces], to not clash, Makarkin said. On the more global issues, the issue of Assad, their positions are diametrically opposed.
Trumps future strategy in Syria remains unclear, which could further complicate the conversation with Russia, but Baunov and Makarkin expected Tillerson to nonetheless take a hard line on Moscows involvement in the country. If the new secretary of state failed to display Kerrys patience to continue talking and look for the smallest chance for agreement with Russia, however, his harsh rhetoric could backfire, Makarkin said.
These ultimatums wont work, he said, except to bring Russia and Assad closer together.
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