On Thursday morning, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson left Moscow after a two-day visit. Not too long ago, the trip had been expected to signal a kind of grand rapprochement between the U.S. and Russia—but after President Trump ordered a missile strike against the Syrian government, last week, those expectations gave way to nervousness and even talk of possible military confrontation. What ultimately took place was something rather milquetoast—Tillerson left with U.S.-Russian relations neither on the path to fairy-tale goodwill (what Trump’s campaign promises led some in Moscow to daydream about) nor at a disconcerting standoff (which the Trump Administration’s inconsistent, at times belligerent, rhetoric of recent days had led some to fear).
In the end, the meeting between Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov featured the same tropes that defined summits with Tillerson’s predecessors, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry: a long list of grievances directed at the U.S. by the Russian side; a basic disagreement over the role of Bashar al-Assad and the preferred contours of a political solution to the civil war in Syria; and vague expressions of optimism with little in the way of concrete breakthroughs. U.S.-Russian relations in the Vladimir Putin era have for some time functioned like a long-running repertory play, and in Moscow this week, all the actors again hewed to the script, and played the roles they were expected to.
In December, when Trump first proposed Tillerson for the job of Secretary of State, Russian officials reacted with unconcealed optimism, even appreciation. As the former head of ExxonMobil, an oil giant with extensive interests in Russia, Tillerson was a respected figure in Moscow, “known to everyone,” as a Kremlin foreign-policy adviser put it. President Putin had famously awarded him an Order of Friendship medal at a Kremlin ceremony, in 2013. His appointment seemed to herald exactly what Putin had been trying to squeeze out of the U.S. for so many years: a pragmatic, business-first foreign policy with little room for moralizing, human-rights concerns, or fighting to uphold international norms just for their own sake. Trump and Tillerson pledged to focus on improving ties with Moscow so as to fight terrorism, and to withdraw U.S. opposition to Assad staying in power. The Kremlin was encouraged.
All that was upended on April 6th, when Trump ordered a cruise-missile strike against Syria in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own population. The operation marked an abrupt shift in the Trump Administration’s stated policy toward Syria—and, by extension, toward Russia. At the same time, members of the Trump Administration began to speak very differently about both countries: Trump began speaking of “red lines,” the White House released intelligence suggesting a Russian coverup in the aftermath of Assad’s chemical attack, and Tillerson, in a break with previously stated policy, said that Assad’s time in power was “coming to an end.” He also suggested that Russia had failed in its role as the “guarantor of the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles . . . the result of their failure has led to the killing of more children and innocents.”
All this led to a lot of huffing and puffing from Russian officials, who feared a repeat of what occurred in Libya in 2011, where a Western military campaign justified on humanitarian grounds paved the way for regime change. The U.S. strike was an “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law,” Putin’s spokesman said. “With this step Washington has struck a significant blow to Russian-American relations, which were already in a sorry state.” Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s beleaguered Prime Minister, was trotted out to try his hand at bellicosity, suggesting that the United States was “on the verge of a military clash with Russia.” A climate of total “mistrust” had led to a state of “completely ruined relations,” Medvedev declared. The whole episode had the air of dark theatre: the strike had driven U.S. cable networks wild with approval, and provoked a lash of anger in Moscow, yet it meant little for the actual dynamics of the conflict in Syria.
More seriously, the strike threatened to complicate Putin’s default approach to global politics. For the past several years, beginning with Russia’s annexation of Crimea, in March, 2014, and continuing with its entry into the Syrian conflict, in September, 2015, Russia’s foreign policy has been based on the paired utility of military force and unpredictability. At times, the combination has proved a way for Putin to outmaneuver considerably stronger geopolitical rivals, such as Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Putin’s sudden incursion of air power into Syria, for example, essentially forced Western capitals—Washington above all—to deal with him again after an extended period of isolation in the wake of the standoff over Ukraine.
“Russia would carry out a certain act and confront other states with a fait accompli,” Alexander Golts, a columnist on the military for The New Times, a liberal magazine in Moscow, said. The basic logic was an updated, Putin-ified version of Richard Nixon’s “madman” theory, which, as Nixon himself once described it, consists of sending the message: “We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button.” With no one wanting to risk confrontation with a nuclear power, especially one that seemed to have a higher risk tolerance than the U.S. or Europe, Putin was able to secure an outsized freedom to maneuver—in Ukraine, Syria, and beyond. “Our foreign policy was based on the idea [that] we aren’t necessarily all that reasonable, but it turns out we are reasonable, or at least enough to avoid military hostilities with the United States,” Golts told me. The much-vaunted air-defense systems that Russia installed in Syria failed to stop the U.S. fusillade last week, either because Russian forces were given an order to stand down, or they simply were technically incapable of intercepting the Tomahawk missiles. As Golts explained, the answer doesn’t really matter. “For years we were saying, ‘Don’t touch us, we’re crazy,’ and it turns out that when you touched us, we didn’t do anything.”
Faced with the choice of taking on the U.S. directly or backing down for the moment, Putin, rhetoric aside, went for the latter. The hope in Moscow is that last week’s strike was a one-off event, the emotional response of an impulsive President, meant to telegraph strength rather than represent a wholesale and systematic new policy approach. The Kremlin can live with that, even if for reasons of pride and appearances it has to make a public display of its dissatisfaction. “There won’t be a new Cuban Missile Crisis,” Vladimir Frolov, a Russian political analyst, wrote in Republic, an online magazine of Russian politics and commentary, explaining why Putin, perhaps uncharacteristically, did not choose the path of confrontation. “Like Khrushchev, Putin in Syria was forced to take a step back, so as to avoid irreparable damage and to preserve hope that things will improve in the future.”
In Moscow this week, Tillerson surely brought up Russia’s support of Assad. For Putin, backing Assad—first with diplomatic cover, and then with military power—was never about Assad himself but about a larger set of strategic aims: stopping what it saw as a tide of U.S.-led regime change, and asserting its prerogative as a global power. Joost Hiltermann, the Middle East and North Africa program director at the International Crisis Group, was in Moscow last week for meetings with Russian officials and Mideast experts. He believed that Russia was likely embarrassed and angry at the position it was put in by the Syrian government’s chemical attack—even as it used its resources to cover for the regime. “If I were Putin I would wait, give this time to die down, tell Assad not to do it again, and as time goes by would be dead set at getting rid of him at the first opportunity,” Hiltermann told me. The problem, Hiltermann said, was that “there is no clear alternative to Assad if you want to preserve the regime, which Russia is set on.”
On Wednesday night, after a day of meetings, Tillerson and Lavrov gave a short press conference at the imposing, pre-Revolutionary mansion the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs uses for official events. (I attended the briefing, where journalists were told that R. C. Hammond, Tillerson’s press adviser, had pre-selected two U.S. outlets to ask questions: A.P. and Fox News.) Tillerson had just come from seeing Putin; an audience had been dangled, then withdrawn, and finally granted in a transparent effort at diplomatic gamesmanship.
In a sign that the Kremlin still is hoping for a better relationship with Washington, and that maybe it wasn’t that mad after all, Tillerson and Lavrov announced that Russia had agreed to reinstate a bilateral military hotline meant to avoid collisions of U.S. and Russian warplanes over Syria, which it had suspended as response to Trump’s missile strike. Tillerson and Lavrov also announced that the two countries would form a new working group meant to improve relations. “There is a low level of trust between our countries,” Tillerson said. “The world’s two primary nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.” One point on which the Trump Administration and the Kremlin may be happy to agree is that this is all Obama’s fault. Lavrov spoke of “certain issues that have been inherited, so to speak, as time bombs from the previous Administration, the Obama Administration.” Presumably, Tillerson’s boss would nod in approval. (Similarly, one imagines that Putin would welcome the fact that, while in Moscow, Tillerson did not find either the time or necessity to meet with Russian opposition figures and civil-society activists.)
Still, for all the political kismet between Trump and Putin—who share, among other things, a fondness for masculine projections of strength and a postmodern liberty with the truth—Tillerson’s visit to Moscow was a reminder that, on many issues, Russia and the United States are at loggerheads that have little to do with personality, and thus can’t be solved by it. Syria may be one of them—as is Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, an effort that Tillerson called “fairly well established” and “serious enough to attract additional sanctions.” Lavrov, of course, was unmoved, suggesting that on everything from the question of Russian election-meddling to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Moscow’s view differs widely from Washington’s. “Unfortunately, we’ve got some differences with regards to a majority of those issues,” he said. How many times did he utter similar words, grim-faced and disappointed, while sharing a podium with Clinton or Kerry?