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Donald Trump’s campaign and election raised expectations for change in the U.S.-Russia relationship. But just under a year into his administration, little has changed. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, however, quickly emerged as President Trump’s go-to-person on relations with Moscow. He described a step-by-step approach: try to take the edge off tensions, make small moves on smaller questions, and then proceed to more challenging issues. Reporters have stated that he even told Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov that the Ukraine-Russia conflict posed the largest impediment to restoring a more normal relationship.
Russia, for its part, seeing no early change in Washington’s policy, and unhappy about American actions such as the cruise missile strike on Syria and the imposition of additional sanctions, elected to invest its hopes in a face-to-face encounter between Trump and Putin. That gave the U.S. president time to check important boxes and meet with the leaders of NATO, China, and Ukraine before sitting down with Putin. The two world leaders discussed the predicted issues: Ukraine, Syria, and North Korea. Just before the meeting, Tillerson indicated a readiness to engage more aggressively in finding a solution to the Ukraine-Russia conflict and proclaimed a special envoy, supporting Trump’s overtures. The heads of state agreed to a ceasefire in southern Syria, a good thing. But otherwise, the meeting was tepid, and the parties announced no major breakthroughs (and none was expected). Trump raised Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election, which Putin unsurprisingly denied. The presidents agreed on a joint cybersecurity working group.
The Kremlin portrayed the meeting as a success. If nothing else, it showed that Putin had come a long way from the 2014 G20 meeting in Australia during the Obama administration, when he left early after being pointedly snubbed by other leaders. As to election hacking, the Russians claimed that Trump had accepted Putin’s denial. Putin said the cyber group would end “speculations” about Russian election interference. In post-meeting press appearances, Putin subtly complimented Trump, in ways that appeared designed to appeal to the American president’s ego. That strategy worked. This suggested that the Kremlin has not given up on Trump—and that Putin may believe that he can manipulate him. At the time, Trump returned to Washington not to acclaim but to new revelations about his son’s contact with Russians and offers of derogatory Russian government information on Hillary Clinton. The investigation will take months and continue to cast a shadow over the White House and its Russia policy into the new year. Any agreements with Moscow will come under microscopic scrutiny to determine whether they entail inappropriate concessions by the current administration.
It appears that the focus on the U.S. approach toward Russia now will shift back to where it began, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. He reportedly has a three-part strategy: push back when Moscow overreaches or commits aggressive acts, cooperate where interests converge, and strengthen strategic stability. It is a sensible policy, even during a time when the press and the American people question President Trump’s sensibility.
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