Putin Meets with Tillerson: What does it mean?

Mr. Putin is no Khrushchev, and instead of losing prestige among his peers for agreeing with the Americans, he will likely gain by it.




by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


Mainstream print media in the United States have presented the meeting yesterday between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in remarkably neutral terms.  One might be tempted to say “factual” but too many relevant facts and observations were missing for the journalism to have substantial value to readers.

The Washington Post did better than other media outlets. Bureau Chief David Filipov and his colleague covering the State Department in Washington highlighted the fact that the parties were “sharply at odds.”

Why and what came out of the meeting appear in the first quarter of the article .

“Russia made it clear it was unwilling to roll back its strategic alliance with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The talks appeared unlikely to bring any significant breakthroughs after last week’s missile strike plunged U.S. relations to one of the lowest points since the Cold War. But despite the growing rifts, some general compromises were discussed.”

The areas of potential compromise identified in WP were possible reinstatement of the information-sharing “deconfliction” Memorandum of Understanding with the United States that the Russians suspended immediately after the attack and the setting up of a U.S.-Russian working group to find ways to ease tensions between the two nuclear superpowers.

After that, the authors moved on to more trivial pursuits such as Donald Trump’s latest tweets about Assad being “an animal.” However, even amidst this swill there were a few information bites worthy of note because they gave expression to Russian policy positions at the talks:  Russia’s refusal to accept ultimatums, such as Tillerson brought with him over choosing ties with the U.S. or with Syria,  Russia’s rejection of the allegations that Bassad was behind the chemical attack in Idlib, Russia’s call for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to investigate the use of chemical weapons there, Putin’s likening the present situation to the one immediately preceding the U.S. invasion of Iraq:  all of these important points are presented in the article at face value, alongside U.S., U.K. and other Western accusations directed against Russia

The New York Times coverage gave more attention to American action than to Russian reaction, as the opening of its cover headline for its several related articles indicates:  “U.S. Pressures Russia …”  The sub-article dealing with the Tillerson visit devotes more attention to what came before and after Putin’s meeting with Tillerson than to what they may have agreed. The NYT’s bureau chief David Sanger noted how Tillerson was held in suspense as his anticipated meeting with Putin was left in doubt till the last minute.  This is described as a typical maneuver by the Russian president to keep his interlocutors off balance, a characterization which ignores the widely reported urgings of Russia’s talking heads before Tillerson’s arrival that their President not receive him, because of the objectionable message on Syria he had laid out already on Monday at the meeting of G7 foreign ministers in Italy.

Indeed, the NYT article says almost nothing about what may have justified the eventual meeting and what was agreed other than the working group to ease tensions, which Sanger correctly identifies as devoted to small and not the big divisive issues.

If we look at the Russian media, we find no complete account of what may have been accomplished during Rex Tillerson’s two-day visit to Russia. But there are more hints of what the Russian negotiating position would have been behind closed doors and what may have justified Putin’s making two hours available for  Tillerson in what was otherwise a very busy day for the President relating to domestic concerns.

Firstly, before Tillerson’s arrival the Russians reported widely on his failure the day before at the G7 meeting to win support for the proposal of imposing further sanctions on Russia over its backing of Assad in light of the chemical weapons event in Idlib.  That proposal was tabled by Boris Johnson of the UK, reiterated by Tillerson and rejected by all other G7 members. With that resounding defeat, Tillerson had no sticks from “the international community” with which to enforce his ultimatum on the Russians: our way or the highway, choose to join the U.S. on regime change in Syria or stick with Assad and Iran.

The other side of the prospective toolkit Tillerson was carrying, carrots, also was discussed on Russian prime time television the evening before his arrival.  Senior Duma member and United Russia Party leader Vyacheslav Nikonov rhetorically demanded of Tillerson on the Evening with Vladimir Solovyov talk show:  “So, make us an offer of what it means to go with America, what it brings us, and then we will consider it.”  In effect, Nikonov was calling the Administration’s bluff.  He and the Russian elites understand perfectly that Donald Trump has no political capital to spend to get Congressional approval of normalized relations with Russia.

Just as the Tillerson-Putin meeting was taking place yesterday,  another widely watched Russian talk show First Studio on the Pervy Kanal state channel directed attention to the very same element of uncertainty which caught the attention of the Times reporter.  Host Artyom Sheinin  opened the panel discussion with a baiting question for the American journalist Michael Bohm, a frequent visitor to the program who is often used as a punching bag.

I believe there is the practice in big corporations for a new visitor who has come to see the boss to first undergo a “screening interview” [собесодование].  It looks as if Tillerson passed this screening process and so he was allowed in to speak to the boss.  Do you think this was a positive thing?

The point here is that the Russians knew that Tillerson came with empty hands and that in fact he was the suitor, not the one being wooed. He came to discuss reinstatement of the Memorandum of Understanding on Deconfliction, because on the U.S. side there was great concern over Russia’s refusal now to speak at the regional level to U.S. counterparts and avert clashes on the ground, in the air that could lead to escalation of confrontation and possibly to all-out-war. Senior officials at the Pentagon were denying already on Saturday, 8 April,  that the Russians had severed all military to military hot lines as they announced, but there had to be cold sweat in Washington.  The uncertainty over security of flying conditions on Syrian territory had already led the Belgians to publicly announce cessation of all their flights within the U.S.-led anti-terror coalition. Presumably other NATO members had come to the same conclusion.

Meanwhile, my information backchannels indicate that the Russians set down their preconditions for reinstatement of the deconfliction arrangements:  no further U.S. air attacks on Syrian government positions.  We may be sure that this was the major subject for discussion and possible agreement during the Tillerson talks with the boss.

In a word, and with reference to the spin that the New York Times wanted to give its coverage of the Tillerson visit, what we have here is somewhat similar to the denouement of the Cuban missile crisis, whereby the U.S. claimed victory publicly while conceding privately what the Russians wanted.   Only Mr. Putin is no Khrushchev, and instead of losing prestige among his peers for agreeing with the Americans, he will likely gain by it.



© Gilbert Doctorow, 2017


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 G. Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015