(BBG) U.S., Russia Vent Disputes While Leaving Room for Progress

(BBG) U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov vented disagreements after hours of talks in Moscow while signaling that neither side is giving up on improving relations soured by Russian hacking and deepening differences over Syria.

Tillerson’s first trip to Russia as the top U.S. diplomat was so freighted with tension that the Kremlin left uncertain whether President Vladimir Putin would snub the American visitor. In the end, Putin spent more than two hours with Tillerson and Lavrov on Wednesday before the diplomats emerged to tell reporters that efforts must be made to mend relations that have sunk to a dangerously low level.

“There is a low level of trust between our two countries,” Tillerson said. “The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.”

Putin and Tillerson had “quite constructive” and detailed discussions about Syria and on the “sad state” of U.S.-Russia relations, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call Thursday. They also talked about the Ukrainian conflict. It’s too early to speak of any shift in the relationship and they didn’t discuss a possible meeting between Putin and President Donald Trump, he said.

‘Goodwill Gesture’

The message from Moscow was that Putin hasn’t yet given up hope that Trump wants to make good on his campaign promises for better relations even after the U.S. leader ordered Tomahawk missiles to hit a Syrian airbase in response to a chemical-weapons attack that Washington blames on President Bashar al-Assad, Putin’s ally.

“That’s where diplomacy comes in,” Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Foreign and Defense Policy Council, an advisory body to the Kremlin, said of Tillerson’s visit. “The fact that Putin received Tillerson was a goodwill gesture. From the Russian side it’s clear there is no desire to engage in confrontation.”

The next step may not come until a possible Trump-Putin meeting. Both leaders are expected to be at a Group-of-20 meeting in Hamburg in July.

‘Went Pretty Well’

Trump shared tempered optimism about Tillerson’s visit at a White House news conference Wednesday.

“Based on everything I’m hearing, things went pretty well, maybe better than anticipated,” he said. While relations “may be at an all-time low,” he said, he remained optimistic that the U.S. and its allies “could get along with Russia.”

Lavrov said Russia has agreed to restart communications designed to ensure U.S. and Russian aircraft flying missions over Syria avoid accidents. Russia suspended the “deconfliction” line after the U.S. airstrike. The two diplomats also agreed to appoint special envoys to address some of the “irritants” to relations — which Lavrov pointedly said had developed primarily during President Barack Obama’s administration.

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A U.S. State Department official, who asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations, said Tillerson’s plan all along was to lay out the U.S. position with Russia and give officials plenty of time to think about it. There was no expectation of a breakthrough, just the hope that Russia will shift its position in the weeks to come.

“My big takeaway is that the Russian rhetoric of recent days was just that,” said Thomas Wright, a fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. “They remain committed to trying to develop a partnership with Trump. And Trump seems open to it.”

Despite the talk of hopes for improvement in relations, Lavrov rehashed an extensive list of Russian grievances, from NATO’s actions in Kosovo in 1999 to U.S. attempts to remove dictators from Sudan to Libya.

Sarin Attack

Lavrov and Tillerson also aired their deep disagreement about whether Assad should remain in power and whether he was responsible for the deadly sarin-gas attack on April 4. The U.S. says it has extensive evidence that Syria was responsible for the attack, while Russia says Syrian forces accidentally struck a building where terrorists kept the internationally banned chemical.

Shortly after Lavrov and Tillerson spoke in Moscow, Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution backed by the U.S. and allies that demanded Assad’s government cooperate with an investigation into the chemical attack. Lavrov said it was aimed “at legitimizing the arguments against Damascus.”

They also clashed on whether Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential campaign by hacking and leaking Democratic emails. U.S. intelligence agencies say Putin’s government did so to defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton and ultimately to help Trump win.

Russian interference in last year’s U.S. presidential campaign is “fairly well established” and “is one that we know is serious enough to attract additional sanctions,” Tillerson said. “I’m sure that Russia is mindful of it as well.”

Door Ajar

Russia hasn’t seen “a single fact, or even a hint of fact” to back up the allegations of meddling, Lavrov said. He said many people are eager “to undermine our relations in order to promote their domestic political, and maybe foreign-policy, ambitions,” Lavrov said.

The Russian hacking controversy, which remains the subject of U.S. probes by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and congressional committees, sidetracked Trump’s campaign pledges to seek better relations with Putin, whom he praised as a strong leader.

But the visit by Tillerson — who was awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship by Putin in 2013 when he headed Exxon Mobil Corp. — left a door ajar for eventual cooperation.

“There’s a significant part of the Russian political establishment that wants normalization with the United States,” said Thomas Graham, a managing director at Kissinger Associates who previously served on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council. “At this point, they’d like to reduce the temperature.”