Washington’s top diplomatic and military officials have set out their conditions for co-operation with Russia by calling on Moscow to fully comply with an international peace accord on Ukraine, in a reaffirmation of Obama era priorities.
The comments from Rex Tillerson, secretary of state, and James Mattis, defence secretary, came amid accusations that other aides close to Donald Trump had improper communications with Russian officials, a scandal that this week led to the dismissal of Michael Flynn, Mr Trump’s national security adviser.
Their message will disappoint those in Moscow who hope that Mr Trump’s arrival in the White House will usher in a thaw in US-Russian relations, and suggest that cabinet officials without personal ties to the new president may attempt to reestablish a more mainstream foreign policy agenda.
Mr Tillerson said on Thursday that Washington was ready to work with the Kremlin if there were areas of co-operation, but Moscow had to fulfil its commitments over the conflict in Ukraine.
He was speaking after a meeting in Bonn with Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart — the first high-level direct contact between the two governments since Mr Trump became US president.
At a Nato meeting in Brussels, Mr Mattis struck a similar note, saying that Washington and Moscow were “not in a position right now to collaborate on a military level”.
But, speaking after talks with other defence ministers, he added that the US and Russian “political leaders will engage and try to find common ground”.
Moscow had expected Mr Trump’s presidency to lead to a new US-Russia rapprochement.
Mr Trump had repeatedly praised President Vladimir Putin during the campaign and carefully eschewed criticism of Kremlin policies. His selection of Mr Flynn, a dove on Russia who sat next to Mr Putin at a gala dinner in Moscow in 2015, had encouraged the Kremlin to believe that a less hostile era was dawning.
But the comments by Mr Tillerson and Mr Mattis suggest that differences over Ukraine continue to loom large over the US-Russia relationship and undermine hopes of a new detente.
“As we search for new common ground, we expect Russia to honour its commitment to the Minsk agreements and work to de-escalate violence in Ukraine,” Mr Tillerson said after his meeting with Mr Lavrov, referring to the international deal to end the fighting in the country.
Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman, has also said that Mr Trump “expects” Mr Putin to “return Crimea”, a remark greeted with fury in Moscow.
Mr Lavrov gave a more positive readout of the meeting, emphasising areas of agreement such as the need to combat terrorism.
“It’s clear we can’t solve all the problems, but we have a common understanding that, where our interests coincide, we must move forward,” he said, adding that Mr Putin and Mr Trump would meet “as soon as both leaders consider it possible”. He said that the issue of western sanctions against Russia had not been discussed.
But in Moscow there are already concerns that the Flynn affair could delay efforts to improve ties. “We’re losing time in terms of solving global problems,” Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said.
Even before Mr Flynn’s dismissal, Moscow was beginning to worry that the new US administration appeared less willing to make a deal than some in the Kremlin had expected. Mr Trump has asked Robert Harward, a retired vice-admiral, to become his new national security adviser.
“We call Washington, and there’s nobody who can take our calls,” one exasperated Russian foreign policy official said last week. US officials said that the new US government had started systematically reviewing Russia policy only about a week ago.
A week before Mr Trump’s inauguration, Kremlin officials were focusing on a first summit with Mr Putin to set a new tone in relations. But since then, Moscow has been scaling back expectations.
Asked if he believed Russia had interfered in the US election, Mr Mattis said “there is very little doubt that they have interfered or attempted to interfere in a number of elections in the democracies”.
Later on Thursday, Gen Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, was due to meet Gen Valery Gerasimov, his Russian counterpart, in Azerbaijan.
Gen Dunford’s office said that the two would discuss issues including US-Russia military relations and the “importance of consistent and clear military-to-military communication to prevent miscalculation and potential crises”.
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