WASHINGTON — The top American diplomat put the onus on Russia Tuesday to take steps to repair flagging relations with the United States, even as he conceded that congressional sanctions would pose a new obstacle. Holding out hope for warmer ties, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he'd meet with his Russian counterpart within days.
In a wide-ranging assessment of his first six months in office, Tillerson also:
- Revealed the U.S. is looking at options to entice Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to leave power peacefully.
- Insisted the U.S. doesn't blame China for North Korea's nuclear behavior despite the American pressure on Beijing. He said the U.S. is open to talks with Pyongyang.
- Argued that Iran's military must leave Syria for the U.S. to cooperate with Russia on ending the Syrian civil war.
- Named retired Gen. Anthony Zinni as special representative to try to resolve the Persian Gulf diplomatic crisis over Qatar.
But on Russia, Tillerson strained hardest to point to progress.
He was unable to show that the U.S. has fulfilled President Donald Trump's objective of a new, more cooperative relationship between the former Cold War foes, noting only modest efforts in Syria as a sign the nations share some common goals. While he said frustrated Americans want the U.S. to get along with the nuclear-armed power, he did not address the deep suspicions at home about the president's intentions. U.S. intelligence agencies have formally accused Moscow of meddling in the 2016 presidential election to help Trump.
"The situation is bad, but believe me — it can get worse," Tillerson said, recounting his message to Russian President Vladimir Putin when they met in March. "And it just did."
Putin this week ordered the U.S. to dramatically cut its diplomatic presence in Russia, solidifying the conclusion that a Trump-driven detente with Moscow hasn't come to pass. Though ostensibly in retaliation for a similar U.S. move last year under President Barack Obama, the Russian action came just after Congress voted to slap Russia with more economic sanctions, and to include new requirements making it far harder for Trump to ease the penalties.
"Neither the president nor I are very happy about that," Tillerson said of the sanctions bill. The diplomat had urged lawmakers not to proceed. "We were clear that we didn't think that was going to be helpful to our efforts, but that's the decision they made."
Trump plans to sign the bill nevertheless, another potent reminder of the political baggage that has beset his efforts to mend ties to Russia. If Trump were to veto the bill, Congress would almost surely override his veto. At a time when the FBI and congressional committees are investigating possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia, a veto override would make it look like lawmakers were rejecting a Trump effort to protect Moscow from U.S. punishment.
Though the White House said the bill was still being reviewed, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump will sign it. Vice President Mike Pence, traveling Tuesday in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, sought to reframe the sanctions as a "further sign of our commitment" to counter Russian aggression in the region.
"The president and our Congress are unified in our message to Russia: a better relationship, the lifting of sanctions will require Russia to reverse the actions that caused the sanctions to be imposed in the first place," Pence said. "And not before."
The U.S. hasn't said how many of its diplomats will have to leave Russia to comply with Putin's order that the U.S. cut its diplomatic personnel to 455. Tillerson suggested the action was expected, given the domestic pressure on the Russian leader to retaliate for steps Obama took to punish Russia after U.S. intelligence agencies concluded Moscow meddled in the election.
"Any leader of any country has their whole population watching them as well," Tillerson said. "He felt he had to do something. Does it make our life more difficult? Of course."
In a rare question-and-answer session, Tillerson recalled Trump's meeting with Sergey Lavrov, Putin's top diplomat, three months ago. Tillerson said the president told the Russian foreign minister: "We need some good news."
Though there have been few such positive developments, Tillerson highlighted Syria, where the U.S. and Russia brokered a cease-fire in the country's southwest that appears to be holding, as proof there are opportunities for effective collaboration.
The next substantive conversation about how to move forward will likely be over the weekend. Tillerson said he plans to meet Lavrov on the sidelines of a regional summit in Manila, Philippines.