Yesterday’s summit between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, was judged to have ended in failure before it even began. Before the two had even met, the New York Times ran a piece criticizing the Trump Administration for having failed to pull off a quick rapprochement with Russia. The article cited various specialists, all marveling at how quickly Trump was transformed into a Russia hawk. Angela Stent, the author of an indispensable history of U.S.-Russian relations since the end of the Cold War, put it most succinctly:
I was skeptical from the beginning that it would be possible for the United States and Russia, after all that happened in the last few years, to engage in a successful reset. What’s surprising is how quickly we returned to the status quo ante we had at the end of the Obama administration.
David Sanger’s postmortem, published hours after the meetings ended, continued the theme in a different register: “If a few weeks ago critics of the Trump administration feared that Mr. Tillerson would simply fold on the sanctions imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, they need not have worried.”
The Times’ two glosses, dinging both “Trump the Putin patsy” and “Trump the Putin hawk” for having failed to achieve a breakthrough, stand in for much of the commentary circulating about U.S.-Russian relations these days. By substituting lazy caricatures for an attempt at understanding the Trump Administration on its own terms, commentators are missing the real story.
Yes, there were no breakthroughs, but the meetings were productive. Consciously or not, Donald Trump is carrying out a “reset” of sorts with Russia, just not necessarily on the terms analysts, historians, and foreign correspondents immediately grasp. These are but the opening moves in a long game—moves that are successfully rewriting the rules under which the game will be played.
People can of course be forgiven for feeling some whiplash. It has been a disorienting few months in Washington, and Donald Trump’s attitude towards Russia has in various guises been at the root of much of the turmoil surrounding his Administration. But through all the chaos, a pattern appears to be emerging—a discernible approach to dealing with allies and adversaries. It’s not fully formed yet, but we may have caught our first glimpse of it in Moscow this week.
Throughout his election campaign, Donald Trump promised more cooperation with Russia and pointedly refused to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin, raising expectations in both Moscow and in Washington that some kind of grand bargain was all but inevitable. A cordial telephone conversation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Trump on January 28, shortly after the inauguration, ended with vague plans for the two leaders to try meet before too long, perhaps in Slovenia.
What followed instead was an unprecedented two months of political fireworks in the United States that all but made such a meeting a non-starter. Allegations that Team Trump had colluded with Russian intelligence to help their man win the election have been probed by journalists from all possible angles. An ongoing federal counterintelligence investigation against Russian meddling in the U.S. elections is still said to target at least one member of the Trump campaign’s inner circle. Trump’s own defiant stance through it all has egged on partisan speculation for weeks, even as definitive evidence of collusion has stubbornly refused to materialize.
Then, last week, in response to a gruesome chemical weapons attack on civilian areas in rebel-held Idlib, President Donald Trump unleashed a salvo of Tomahawk missiles against an air field controlled by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad. The retaliatory strike took place less than a week before Tillerson was scheduled to head to Moscow. It signaled a real sea change.
Some of us here at TAI thought the Trump Administration’s move had little to do with Syria, and was meant to signal a renewed willingness to resort to violence in its foreign policy—an attempt to redefine the vocabulary of international relations after eight years of President Obama. We wrote that although “Russia was the big power most directly challenged by the strike, Putin was perhaps not even the primary intended recipient of the message.” The Administration saw North Korea as the primary emerging crisis; Assad’s revolting transgression provided an opportunity to make a broader point about how the United States would treat rogue nations flaunting international agreements on weapons of mass destruction. Obama had damaged American credibility with his “red line” fiasco in Syria. Trump’s advisers wanted to restore it.
We were at least partly right. Yes, Syria really was about North Korea. But it was not only about North Korea. Over the weekend, Administration principals fanned out to the various talk shows and started turning up the heat on Moscow as well. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said that the removal of Bashar al Assad—notably by political means rather than by decapitating strike—was now Trump Administration policy, and called on Russia to think strongly about abandoning its Syrian ward. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said the United States would hold Russia accountable for Assad’s attack against civilians, hinting that the United States had classified intelligence directly linking Russia to the attacks.
On Monday, the onslaught continued. Unnamed U.S. officials appeared to back up Haley’s claims, alleging that Russia knew the chemical attacks were coming and may have helped Assad regime planes cover up the attack by providing intelligence that led to the bombing of a hospital treating victims. By Tuesday, the day of Tillerson’s departure for Moscow, the Trump Administration had issued a blistering attack on Russia’s attempts to cast doubt on Assad’s culpability, based on specific declassified intelligence. “Moscow’s response to the April 4 attack follows a familiar pattern of its responses to other egregious actions; it spins out multiple, conflicting accounts in order to create confusion and sow doubt in the international community,” the unclassified report concluded.
Just ahead of his departure for Moscow, Tillerson himself mocked the Kremlin: “It is unclear whether Russia failed to take [its] obligation [to rid Syria of chemical weapons] seriously or Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement,” he said at a meeting of the G7 in Lucca, Italy. “This distinction doesn’t much matter to the dead.” He seemed to offer a kind of ultimatum to the Russians: “We want to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people. Russia can be a part of that future and play an important role,” he said. “Or Russia can maintain its alliance with this group, which we believe is not going to serve Russia’s interests longer term.”
A hostile tone for the meeting was unmistakably being set. And yet Tillerson also let the mask drop a little. At the same G7 meeting on Tuesday, he pointedly asked his counterparts why U.S. taxpayers should care about the conflict in Ukraine. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault took credit for setting Tillerson straight. “It is in the interests of the U.S. taxpayers to have a Europe that is secure and is strong politically and economically…. You don’t want a weak Europe, broken into bits and feeble,” he said.
Maybe it was a rookie mistake to think that such an offhand remark delivered among preening diplomats wouldn’t immediately leak. Or maybe Tillerson didn’t much care if it did.
Over in Russia, Trump’s Tomahawks had in fact shaken things up. One of the first narratives to take hold—trotted out by the Ministry of Defense and then dutifully repeated by all the pro-Kremlin defense experts—was that the American strike had been a dismal failure, since less than half the Tomahawks had supposedly reached their target. Russian journalists flocked to Al Shayrat air base and posted photos and videos showing that the runway was left mostly intact. Defense Ministry Spokesman General Igor Konashenkov described the strike as “inefficient,” saying a total of only 23 missiles had hit the base.
The reason for the Kremlin’s initial messaging was embarrassment. As Pavel Felgengauer, a Russian military expert who writes a regular column in the independent Novaya Gazeta, noted: “the good General [Konashenkov] had better keep quiet, lest his words confirm that the brand new Russian radars installed across Syria are not capable of intercepting old (though modernized) Tomahawks—missiles that have been in production for forty years, lacking any of the countermeasures found in more modern American systems. In other words, when a Tomahawk is launched above the sea it is easy to spot, but when it is flying low to the ground and hugging the terrain, Russian systems are confused and lost.” Michael Kofman, an American military analyst who confirmed that 59 of the 60 Tomahawks launched had in fact hit their intended targets, offered a slightly less scathing assessment of why the Kremlin’s vaunted radars and rockets failed to stop the Tomahawks: “The short answer is that their air defenses were meant to defend Russian forces, not Syrian assets, and probably not armed to take on a 60 cruise missile salvo anyway.”
Either way you look at it, the American strike was a black eye for a Kremlin that had heavily invested in demonstrating to the Russian people that it was a formidable world power able to stand up to the mighty United States. When S-300 systems were installed in Syria in October of last year, Kremlin-friendly media incessantly repeated boasts from MoD officials as to how Syria’s skies were now officially “closed” to American attacks. The same General Konashenkov had called any suggestion that U.S. cruise missiles could evade Russian air defenses a “fantasy of dilettantes.” Not only had 59 missiles gotten through, they had done so with full warning ahead of time from the United States. Not good!
Putin reacted to the strike by immediately suspending the agreement over deconflicting procedures with the United States in Syria. More broadly, he set the tone over the weekend by calling the American strike an “aggression against a sovereign state, against international law, made under false pretexts.” In Putin’s Russia, the President speaks and the apparatchiks quickly parrot; the language on “false pretexts” was soon repeated word for word, most notably by Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin. Several wry Russian commentators noted that the statement accurately described Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, but that sentiment was not relayed by the Kremlin-loyal mass media most accessible to average Russians; it dutifully continued singing Putin’s refrain, which quickly became the “line” ahead of the summit.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev also got in on the act, posting a message on Facebook, thundering that the United States was “on the verge of a military clash with Russia.” Perhaps more tellingly, Medvedev observed that President Trump had shown an “extreme dependency on the opinion of the Washington establishment”—a confession that the Kremlin thinks it has probably lost the fight over hearts and minds inside the White House, at least for now.
By the time Tillerson had landed in Moscow, the Russians appeared rattled from the torrent of criticism flowing from U.S. officials. Putin went on a state television station to furiously spin on the question of chemical weapons in Syria. “Where is the proof that the Syrian government forces used chemical weapons? There is no proof,” Putin said. He went on to float two alternative scenarios, notably not fully endorsing either. “The first is that the Syrian bombs hit a secret chemical weapons facility,” the Russian President said, describing this scenario as “quite possible.” He then went on to darkly suggest that it also could have been “a staged provocation, a deliberate incident designed to create a pretext for increasing pressure on the legitimate Syrian authorities.” This time, he more explicitly spelled out what he had only alluded to in previous statements: “The same thing happened back in 2003, when a pretext was concocted to justify sending troops to Iraq.”
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova appeared on the independent TV-Dozhd and tried to go on some kind of offensive, criticizing the Trump Administration for its slow start in staffing the State Department. “It is not clear what they will do in Syria and not only there,” she said. “Nobody understands what they will do in the Middle East because it is a very complicated region, forgive me for saying such a banal thing. Nobody understands what they will do with Iran, what they will do with Afghanistan. Nobody understands what they will do with North Korea.”
But despite all the bluster—and perhaps because they sensed an opening—the Russians also left the door ajar a little. The day of the meeting, as Tillerson and Lavrov began their dialogue, the Kremlin had still not announced if Putin himself would receive the American Secretary of State. Journalists read this as either a snub of historic proportions or as Putin playing his classic power games. They missed what the Russians had actually said: Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declared Putin would see Tillerson if progress was made on negotiations earlier in the day.
And lo, Putin and Tillerson did meet, and for two hours at that—a sign that the Russians were eager to telegraph that they were pleased with how things had gone. Though several outlets ran headlines implying that Putin had made the Secretary “wait,” there’s little evidence that Putin pulled any of that alpha male stuff this time around. (Tillerson left his hotel at 5:30 p.m. local time and was received by the Russian President half an hour later.)
So what was achieved? As we noted, if media reports are anything to go by, the answer is “not much.” The talks were said to have been frank, with both sides digging their heels in over facts surrounding the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The Russians wouldn’t budge; Putin refused to abandon Assad as Tillerson had urged him to do the day before. Tillerson himself was widely quoted as saying that relations between the two countries were at a “low point.” A narrative was emerging: Trump’s neophytes had gone in full of hot talk after a telegenic strike that had failed to appreciably change the balance of power on the ground in Syria—and had come back embarrassingly empty-handed.
In truth, however, the meetings did yield some results. Though rhetoric over Assad remained sharp, both sides in effect agreed to disagree and instead to focus on fighting “terrorism”—which is exactly what President Trump had wanted improved U.S.-Russian relations to hinge on. Lavrov announced that bilateral backchannel communications over Ukraine, which were an open secret under Obama (the fabled “Surkov-Nuland” channel), could be recreated under Trump. And Lavrov also identified defusing the North Korea crisis as an area where the two countries might cooperate.
Angela Stent’s analysis is not therefore completely wrong: From a pure policy standpoint, we are back at the status quo ante that the Obama Administration left for the Trumpies. But the changed circumstances matter. For example, in announcing the joint focus on fighting terror, Lavrov suggested that the suspended deconfliction agreement could be reinstated in short order; Tillerson had gotten the Russians to back off on the only retributive step they had taken since the Tomahawk strike against their proxy Assad. In return, Tillerson appeared to back reinstating a bilateral backchannel that Kyiv was never particularly keen on and that Moscow prizes—after letting it be known to allies that the United States is skeptical about unconditionally backing Ukraine. Also, three weeks after a very muted response by the United States over widespread arrests of peaceful anti-corruption protesters across Russia, human rights was not mentioned once by Tillerson, and he didn’t meet with any opposition leaders in the country—a notable break with precedent that the Russians surely appreciated.
President Obama had found himself at an impasse with the Kremlin after two terms in office. His Secretary of State, John Kerry, appeared to enjoy working with Lavrov but was getting nowhere. Obama and Kerry both saw diplomacy as an ongoing discussion about how to build a better world—about how people can reach a positive-sum outcome through dialogue. Obama himself was a man who put his faith in rationality, and as a consequence his diplomacy prioritized confidence-building gestures of goodwill and eschewed the use of force.
Team Trump is very different. The President may have initially thought that some gestures of goodwill toward Russia (in his case, compliments paid to Putin) could yield an easy deal. But due to both domestic political realities and exposure to the ideas of the people he has chosen to surround himself with, Trump appears to have abandoned such hopes and instead fallen back on his business instincts. Of all the President’s men, Rex Tillerson is probably the most like-minded on these matters. Unlike the garrulous John Kerry, he was all terseness and scowls in Moscow. But also unlike his predecessor, he appears to have taken the first halting steps toward a working relationship with the Russians.
There is little doubt that the Trump Administration is improvising on the details of its policy. But it’s also clear that it intends to pursue the negotiations in a very different manner from previous Administrations. This was not classic diplomacy we watched unfold this week, where summits are the culmination of hours of behind-the-scenes staff work. This was an attempt to set the language in which an understanding could eventually be reached—a language of threats and coercion, yes, but also of transactions and mutual respect. Only those who seriously thought Donald Trump would roll over and hand Putin everything he wanted on a silver platter on Day One of his Presidency are missing this changed landscape. Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy may or may not work out in the end, but this is what it looks like.
And from what we’ve seen so far, the Russians appear to have recognized this new landscape for what it is—and they don’t seem to be too disappointed. President Trump is, more or less, speaking their language.