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Takeaways from Tillerson’s visit to Moscow

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Moscow on Tuesday and paralyzed traffic in Russia’s capital as police moved to cordon off his route. The paralysis of Moscow’s thoroughfares mirrors the paralysis in bilateral relations between the two powers following the US strike on Syria last week.

US President Donald Trump ordered the strike after a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria which he said was committed by Bashar Assad’s forces. Moscow slammed the American move and relations have dipped in the past week.

Russia has withdrawn from the US-Russia memorandum on air safety in Syrian airspace and made it clear that in the case of any further aggression, it would respond accordingly.

Global attention focused on Tillerson’s visit in the aftermath of Trump’s strike on Syria, which followed years of Barack Obama’s failure to act. International observers expected that Tillerson would talk tough with Russian officials. However, Russia did not seem cowed.

Tillerson held two much-awaited meetings during his time in Moscow — one with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and one with President Vladimir Putin.

The Ukrainian issue does not seem as though it will be resolved soon so sanctions and damaged relations are likely to remain in place. In the case of Ukraine, only the issues of Luhansk and Donbass may be settled within the framework of the Minsk agreements. However, Crimea, the return of which to Ukraine was added by Trump’s administration as an obligatory condition for the normalization of ties, will never be returned to Ukraine, I believe. This is due to the choice of the Crimean people who have been struggling for independence from Ukraine since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Tillerson and Putin failed to find common ground on the issue of Syria and Russia’s support of Bashar Assad. Russia continually rejects the notion that it supports Assad, choosing instead to describe its role in Syria exclusively as a backer of the Syrian Army in the face of terrorist entities.

His statement that “the world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship” is a promising sign as it shows that the US administration hopes for a normalization of ties with Russia.

Maria Dubovikova

Meanwhile, Russia continues to call for an investigation into last week’s suspected chemical weapons attack while the US has already accorded blame to Assad. Previously, Putin declared that Russia could not take measures against Assad until an independent international investigation proves the regime is guilty. Russia disapproves of the US strike on Syria, considering it a dangerous move which will further destabilize the situation.

Promising signs?

Tillerson’s statement that “the world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship” is a promising sign as it shows that the American administration hopes for a normalization of ties.

Another promising development is the establishment of a bilateral working group to “examine” the so-called “irritants” in relations between Moscow and Washington.

Russia and the US apparently have very similar interests in many areas of the global agenda. However, in some cases, both follow very different approaches in their attempts to achieve the desired results.

Even in the case of Syria, both sides are eager to put an end to the brutal conflict but believe that very different, if not opposing, paths should be taken. For the US, Assad must step down while for Russia, this is not the case. To respond to Tillerson’s appeal to sever ties with Assad and to work with the US on different initiatives in the Middle East would be a grave failure for Russia and a blow to its honor on the world stage.

Trump was reportedly very happy with the outcome of Tillerson’s visit. After reversing his position on NATO, he claimed this week that “it would be a fantastic thing” if the US, NATO and Russia got along better.

It seems that this back-and-forth decision changing is a characteristic feature of the current US administration which seems to have no clear understanding of what is going on and what it wants. There is no strategy in place and tactics are determined on-the-fly.

In such circumstances, it is practically impossible to predict how a situation will develop both on bilateral and international tracks as the US administration is unpredictable. Thus, Russia, following the American visit, will host a trilateral meeting between itself, Syria and Iran. The abruptness of the US administration leaves Russia no choice but to be firm and stubborn, it seems.

• 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.