As headlines about former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia keep the presses rolling at home, senior Trump officials are engaged in a busy day of diplomacy with their Russian counterparts abroad. But despite the frenzied speculation about Trump’s Russia ties, the Administration’s early diplomatic moves complicate the narrative.
For example, on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Bonn today, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, where he pointedly re-affirmed of U.S. policy on Ukraine. The Washington Post:
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged Russia on Thursday to help tamp down the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where separatists backed by Moscow are fighting government troops. […]
“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 Ukraine,” Tillerson said.
Meanwhile in Baku, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford—an Obama holdover—met with the Russian General Valery Gerasimov. The meeting represented the two countries’ highest level of military-to-military engagement since 2014, but it hardly moved the needle. According to a Pentagon readout, the talks focused on technical procedures to keep lines of communication open, and did not signify any shift in policy.
And in Brussels, Defense Secretary James Mattis definitively threw cold water on the idea that the Pentagon was ready to collaborate with the Russians. BBC:
At a Nato meeting in Brussels, Gen Mattis rejected calls by Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu to “restore co-operation with the Pentagon”.
“We are not in a position right now to collaborate on a military level, but our political leaders will engage and try to find common ground or a way forward,” he told reporters.
In Bonn, Baku, and Brussels, the Trump Administration appears to be signaling that there will be no immediate breakthrough in relations with Russia. And for all the reports about interagency chaos in Washington, there appears to be coordination happening on Russia policy, at least. The latest signals echo recent moves—including Nikki Haley’s blasting Russia at the UN, Tillerson’s agreement to uphold sanctions, and the White House demand that Russia return Crimea—which suggest that Trump is looking to extend much of the Obama Administration’s policies on Russia, such as they were.