By Maria Dubovikova*
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow is expected to take place in the next two weeks, according to US Ambassador John Tefft. Tefft says preparations are underway and the visit has not yet been officially announced, but Tillerson is supposed to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin.
The current international environment is complicating bilateral relations. The US continues to mess up with the investigation into whether Russia intervened in the last election, and who are the Kremlin’s agents in the Trump administration. The administration is busy proving its innocence instead of doing its job.
The current US political climate makes any easing of tensions very suspicious to the media and President Donald Trump’s opponents, and very risky for the administration. Meanwhile, Tillerson has expressed unambiguous US support for NATO against Russian aggression.
The main area of discord is Ukraine, and the US position has toughened since the Obama administration. Previously sanctions were to be lifted if Russia fully committed to the Minsk agreements, but now the key condition is the return of Crimea. If the rhetoric stays the same, a warming of US-Russian ties will never happen, and the prospects for talks will be dim.
Russia is not going to bargain over Crimea and its national interests. It will not do anything to stop the West drawing an iron curtain. Until sanctions are at least eased, the bilateral agenda will be limited to maintaining dialogue.
At the same time, Washington has announced that its priority in Syria is no longer to “get (President Bashar) Assad out,” but to apply pressure that will help “start to make change in Syria.” Assad’s long-term status will be decided by the Syrian people.
The top US priority is to fight terrorism, which strongly correlates with Russia’s position on Syria. At the recent Munich Security Conference, Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy for the global anti-Daesh coalition, pointed to the high probability of US-Russian cooperation in fighting terrorism. This week, it was announced that the fifth round of Geneva talks is planned for May. So Syria will supposedly be a particular focus in Tillerson’s visit to Russia.
But no breakthroughs or warming of ties should be expected from the visit, as the current environment makes cooperation impossible. Tillerson will try to look hawkish so as not to be accused of being bought by the Kremlin, and not to remind the media of him being praised with Russia’s Order of Friendship by Putin in 2013, though that was for matters related to his time at Exxon Mobil. No understanding will be reached on Ukraine and Crimea.
Syria and fighting terrorism will dominate the talks. Harmonizing the US and Russian positions on Syria is vital to the fate of the country and its people. This could bring about a positive outcome at the next Geneva talks, and the launching of a political process. The same goes for the war on terror, which is for the sake of humanity and should not be limited to cooperation in Syria or the wider Middle East.
Russia and the US, which have extraordinary experience in tackling terrorism, would bring about much more stability if they united their efforts rather than work separately. This common ground could ease bilateral tensions, to the benefit of the international community. As such, detente is vital despite all existing disagreements, so Tillerson’s visit to Russia is important and should not be shrouded by paranoia.
In the words of NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg: “It is important to keep talking to each other to increase predictability and reduce risks.” It is even more important to keep talking to join forces to tackle global threats.
*Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). She can be reached on Twitter: @politblogme.