The Trump administration is sending its envoy for Ukraine negotiations to Moscow in a bid to make progress on the diplomatic crisis, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Sunday.
After his first meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson since new American sanctions, Lavrov emerged with an upbeat assessment about the potential for finding common ground on Ukraine, Syria and other issues.
Lavrov said he and Tillerson had agreed to preserve a high-level diplomatic channel that Russia had suspended in protest of an earlier tightening of U.S. sanctions.
“We felt that our American counterparts need to keep the dialogue open,” Lavrov said. “There’s no alternative to that.”
There was no immediate reaction to the meeting from the U.S. State Department. Tillerson did not comment publicly or respond to shouted questions from journalists allowed in briefly for the start of the hour-plus meeting in the Philippines.
Lavrov said Tillerson had asked him for details about Moscow’s recent action to retaliate against U.S. sanctions by expelling American diplomats and shuttering a U.S. recreational facility on the outskirts of Moscow. The Russian diplomat said he explained to Tillerson how Russia will carry out its response, but Lavrov isn’t giving out details.
Last month, the Kremlin said the U.S. must cut its embassy and consulate staff in Russia by 755 people, a move that echoed former President Barack Obama’s action last year to kick out Russian diplomats in punishment for Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 American election. The Russian announcement has caused confusion because the U.S. is believed to have far fewer than 755 American employees in the country.
Word that U.S. special representative Kurt Volker plans to visit the Russian capital was the latest sign that Washington is giving fresh attention to resolving the Ukraine conflict. The U.S. cut military ties to Russia over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and accuses the Kremlin of fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine by arming, supporting and even directing pro-Russian separatists there who are fighting the Kyiv government.
In recent days, the Trump administration has been considering providing lethal weaponry to Ukraine to help defend itself against Russian aggression.
Lavrov didn’t say when Volker, a former NATO ambassador, would go to Moscow. Last month, Volker paid his first visit as special representative to embattled eastern Ukraine.
In their meeting, Lavrov said, Tillerson agreed to continue a dialogue between U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov. That channel was created to address what the U.S. calls “irritants” preventing the two countries from pursuing better ties. Russia had suspended the talks after the U.S. tightened existing sanctions on Russia related to its actions in Ukraine.
Lavrov and Tillerson met on the sidelines of an Asian regional gathering in the Philippines. It was their first face-to-face conversation since Congress passed new legislation in July that makes it harder for Trump to ever ease penalties on Russia. Trump signed the bill last week, but called it “seriously flawed.”
The White House said Trump’s opposition stemmed from the bill’s failure to grant the president sufficient flexibility on when to lift sanctions. Trump’s critics saw his objections as one more sign that he is too eager to pursue closer ties to Russia, or to protect the former Cold War foe from penalties designed to punish Moscow for its actions in Ukraine, election meddling and other troublesome behavior.
A U.S. Justice Department investigation is moving ahead into Russia’s election interference and potential Trump campaign collusion. Trump denies any collusion and has repeatedly questioned U.S. intelligence about Moscow’s involvement.
At the same time, Trump’s administration has argued there’s good reason for the U.S. to seek a more productive relationship. Tillerson has cited modest signs of progress in Syria, where the U.S. and Russia recently brokered a cease-fire in the war-torn country’s southwest, as a sign there’s fertile ground for cooperation.
The Syrian cease-fire reflected a return of U.S.-Russia cooperation to lower violence there. The U.S. had looked warily at a series of safe zones in Syria that Russia had negotiated along with Turkey and Iran — but not the U.S.
Lavrov said there will be more talks in the coming week involving Russia, Iran and Turkey about how to ensure the truce in the last safe zone to be established, around the north-western city of Idlib. He predicted “it will be difficult” to hammer out the details but that compromise can be reached if all parties — including the U.S. — use their influence in Syria to persuade armed groups there to comply.