A proxy battle with Russia in Syria and multiple Russia-related investigations in the US will follow Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Moscow next week on a trip designed to test the Trump administration's hopes for closer ties to the former Cold War foe.
Tillerson will make the first visit to Russia by a Trump administration official just days after the US launched cruise missiles against an air base in Syria, where Russia's military is on the ground propping up its ally, President Bashar Assad.
Until yesterday, the US had avoided striking Assad's forces, largely out of concern about being pulled into a military conflict with Russia.
Tillerson, speaking just after the strikes were announced, said Russia had “failed in its responsibility” to deliver on a 2013 deal it helped broker to destroy Syria's chemical weapons arsenal.
“So either Russia has been complicit, or Russia has been simply incompetent on its ability to deliver,” Tillerson said. Growing disagreements about Syria are just the latest obstacle to any plans President Donald Trump had to closer align the US and Russia on the world stage.
Trump and his associates are embroiled in mushrooming investigations into potential collusion between his presidential campaign and Russian President Vladimir Putin's government, accused by America's spy agencies of interfering in the election to help elect Trump.
Despite Trump's much-hyped campaign talk about a Russia reset, there's no appetite for that from either political party in the US Skepticism about Russia's intentions was only compounded by its defense of Assad after a deadly chemical attack that the US says was no doubt carried out by Assad's forces.
Even minor concessions to Russia would trigger immediate accusations from Trump's opponents that the president who has praised Putin generously and repeatedly is beholden to Putin, a former KBG agent. Add to that Trump's anger at Russia for violating a nuclear arms treaty and continued global outrage over Putin's actions in Ukraine, and it's difficult to see realistic chances for near-term rapprochement.
“I think the Russians have adjusted their expectations down as to the possibilities of a breakthrough, and what happened in Syria is going to add to that,” said Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama. Still, he said the Russians would likely treat Tillerson warmly in hopes his trip could smooth the path toward a Trump-Putin meeting.
Tillerson arrives in Moscow on Tuesday after a brief visit to Lucca, Italy, to meet with counterparts from the Group of 7 industrialized economies. While in Russia, Tillerson plans to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.