Russia: Trump’s Ukraine envoy to visit Moscow
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 yesterday. After his first meeting with US 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 US 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.
Giving out details
Lavrov said Tillerson had asked him for details about Moscow’s recent action to retaliate against US sanctions by expelling American diplomats and shuttering a US 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 US 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 US is believed to have far fewer than 755 American employees in the country.
Word that US 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 Kiev 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 US Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov. That channel was created to address what the US calls “irritants” preventing the two countries from pursuing better ties. Russia had suspended the talks after the US 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 US Justice Department investigation is moving ahead into Russia’s election interference and potential Trump campaign collusion. Trump denies any collusion and has repeatedly questioned US intelligence about Moscow’s involvement. At the same time, Trump’s administration has argued there’s good reason for the US to seek a more productive relationship. Tillerson has cited modest signs of progress in Syria, where the US and Russia recently brokered a cease-fire in the war-torn country’s southwest, as a sign there’s fertile ground for cooperation.