Yesterday’s meetings in Moscow between US Secretary of State Tillerson and President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov were a front-rank example of top diplomacy in action, the more so as while that was happening intense discussions continued at the UN over a new (doomed) Syria UNSC resolution that Russia duly vetoed.

Here’s the transcript of the Tillerson/Lavrov press conference as made available speedily by the US State Department (the Russian MFA do not have an English version posted yet – their Russian version omits what Tillerson said). It’s not clear how the US State Department translated Lavrov from the Russian. Did they use what the interpreter on the day said? Or did they arrange their own translation?

Points of interest.

As well as what is said on such occasions, there is Tone. The tone of this press conference was cautiously positive, as if both sides were trying to build on whatever scraps of common ground they have identified and so ‘re-set’ the relationship.

Lavrov opened by setting this visit in the context of the flawed diplomacy of the Obama era:

… there are certain issues that have been inherited, so to speak, as time bombs from the previous administration, the Obama administration. We are being realistic, and we do understand that in order to overcome these obstacles we have to make efforts, and we seek to do that.

We understand that our American counterparts are going to move towards us as well, and our president reaffirmed our will to do that. We see that attempts at preventing our cooperation. There are even attempts at escalating the confrontation, but we do not believe that this is an astute approach. We do understand that if Moscow and Washington cooperate, this is for the benefit not just – just of our nation but also for the sake of the whole world.

Lavrov referred back to the Obama Administration’s policies eight times in all, mainly in a dismissive way.

Tillerson too in his opening remarks sought to look forward, albeit in a step-by-step way:

Over the course of the past two years, a number of reciprocal actions have been taken to demonstrate the dissatisfaction each country has with the other. We need to attempt to put an end to this steady degradation, which is doing nothing to restore the trust between our two countries or to make progress on the issues of the greatest importance to both of us.

We have agreed to establish a working group to address smaller issues and make progress toward stabilizing the relationship, so that we can then address the more serious problems. Foreign Minister Lavrov and I agreed we would consider further proposals made about the way forward in Syria, including consulting with our allies and coalition members. And we will continue discussions about how to find a solution to the Syrian conflict.


Lavrov gave long rambling replies that sought to present Moscow as merely (and reasonably?) ‘wanting to establish the facts’ about the latest CW attacks. While Moscow insists that it wants ‘evidence’ of such attacks, Moscow of course then can deny that any evidence actually presented is reliable. Lavrov emphasised that it wanted the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to investigate, hinting that others might be keen to stop this happening:

I’d just like to stress here that we are absolutely 100 percent convinced that if our colleagues in the United Nations and in The Hague shirk from this investigation, then this will mean that they simply don’t want to establish the truth. And we will insist on it …

… The presumption of innocence must reign supreme. And I have just told you that our instructions to the Hague, to the OPCW in the Hague about the investigation, if this is – if people put the brakes on, we shall protest.

The operational issue here is that OPCW’s excellent inspectors can work in Syria only on the Assad regime’s terms, and even then it’s difficult to get access to sites quickly enough to analyse (let alone ‘prove’) what exactly happened and how it happened. CW agents tend to disperse naturally – investigations some time after an attack may show nothing. So there’s no ‘evidence’? QED!

Should Assad go as part of any deal?

Tillerson gave a careful, pragmatic reply:

… the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end, and they have again brought this on themselves with their conduct of the war these past few years. We discussed our view that Russia, as their closest ally in the conflict, perhaps has the best means of helping Assad recognize this reality.

We do think it’s important that Assad’s departure is done in an orderly way – an orderly way – so that certain interests and constituencies that he represents feel they have been represented at the negotiating table for a political solution. How that occurs, we leave that to the process going forward. We do not think one has to occur before the other can begin. And it will take a pace of its own.

But the final outcome in our view does not provide for a role for the Assad – for Assad or for the Assad family in the future governance of Syria. We do not think the international community will accept that. We do not think the world will accept that.

In other words, Assad needs to go (eventually) if only for symbolic ‘new start’ reasons. But Assadism has a role to play. Let’s talk!

Lavrov replied with an extended and rather condescending historical tour of what happens when dictators fall or wobble under outside Western pressure (Milošević, Bashir, Saddam, Qaddafi):

So this insistence on removing or ousting a dictator or totalitarian leader – we have already been through it. We very well know, only too well, what happens when you do that. I don’t remember any case of a dictator being removed smoothly, without violence.

So in Syria – and I have stressed this on many times – we are not staking everything on a personality, on President Assad, as is being done in Libya at the moment. We are simply insisting that everybody sits around a table and talks about it and comes to agreement. As has been enshrined in the Security Council resolution, we want to install dialogue with all the players concerned, and we want the Syrians themselves, without any kind of exclusion, to be represented in this process.

And removing or ousting a particular personality from this scene is not on our agenda. We are talking about the whole of the Syrian Government. We want it to be democratic and we want it to be secular as well. We want to see all the ethnic confessional groups in the country to feel protected, justly represented in all the branches of government and power. And, obviously, for that you need a new constitution. We think that then the question of the fate of individuals could be dealt with and without any kind of tragic consequences for the state as a whole.

This formulation is in fact arguably realistic. It amounts to saying that Assad’s future is open for discussion as part of a wider process involving all key forces in Syria. Moscow does not rule out Assad ‘going’, as long as that is part of an agreed process involving, ahem, Assad too. That in turn reflects real issues of power and ‘face’ in Syria.

In other words, Washington and Moscow potentially can agree on all this. Washington does not make Assad going a precondition for peace talks. Moscow does not exclude that outcome as an option.

Note too that in all Lavrov’s world-weary analysis of supposed Western failures in ousting dictators, there is not a single useful word on how dictators may simply pile up wider problems by lingering in power too long and being horribly violent to stay there. If Russia wants to be a responsible global power, it surely has to accept some responsibility for managing intelligent ends to clueless dictatorships if only to avoid the shambolic outcomes in Iraq, Libya and Syria?

That said, Lavrov concluded the press briefing by emphasising that Russia is on solid legal ground in Syria:

And once again, I’d just like to say that in Syria, we are working at the request of the legitimate government of a member country of the United Nations, and we are against any kind of sanctions initiated by the Security Council of the United Nations, and we are combatting terrorism. We want to make sure that ISIL and the Nusrah forces do not get hold of Damascus …

And as far as crimes committed in Syria, certainly we will be eager to sort that out, and I think that there have to be priorities. And the priorities which you have heard from Washington to the effect that the destruction of ISIL is priority number one and the – John Kerry and Spicer have already said that it is possible to get rid of ISIL without regime change, and Kerry has said that it is much more important to deal with ISIL than Assad’s regime.

So I think we think in very like manner here. The common threat is absolutely obvious.

If it is possible to overcome ISIL without reversing the regime, then, having reversed or upturned the regime, it may well be that we will lose the fight against ISIL.

So I think that what we need to do is to use common sense and fewer emotions.

Russia and US elections?

Tillerson did not dwell on this but did make some firm but general remarks:

I think as to the question of the interference with the election, that is fairly well-established in the United States and I think that has been spoken to on the Hill as well with the Congress. And it is a serious issue. It’s one that we know is serious enough to attract additional sanctions. And so we are mindful of the seriousness of that particular interference in our elections, and I’m sure that Russia is mindful of it as well.

Lavrov pushed back:

As far as the argument that the U.S. has incontrovertible evidence of the fact that we intervened in the U.S. presidential campaign, then I have to say once again that not a single fact has been confirmed. Who saw those facts, we don’t know. Nobody has shown us anything. And we have said to them, show us the evidence for these very slanderous attacks.

I know that there are numerous cohorts of people who want to subvert our relations in order to hike up their political or extra-political ambitions. That is not the issue. Let us look at that, give us evidence, and we will respond.

North Korea

The two men emphasised a broad common approach here (not surprisingly – neither Moscow nor Washington (nor Beijing) really wants North Korea brandishing nuclear weapons:


The fact that Secretary Tillerson visited Moscow on the day Moscow vetoed a UNSC Resolution on Syria will have given the Russians ill-disguised satisfaction: they show us respect, we show them strength!

Over and above such immediate considerations, Presidents Putin and Trump are sounding each other out. President Trump did not mess around in blowing up something in Syria following the new CW attack. So Moscow is keenly interested in the scope of US willingness to use force under new management: what in fact does Washington hope to achieve in Syria, or anywhere else?

It’s our old friend Negotiation Technique.

You exert negotiating power by being able to do things. And by blocking others from doing things.

Moscow can’t do much these days to change things in a positive direction. It does not have the money or skill or inclination. But Moscow CAN block action by others, with Syria (and Ukraine) fine examples.

Hence the quandary for Western policy. Best to try to raise the cost to Moscow of its blocking by force or pressure or sanctions? Or pay Moscow not to block? Sticks? Or carrots?

What if Moscow simply likes blocking as an end in itself, and makes the price we have to pay Russia to stop blocking so high as to be absurd?

Worse, what if issues stay ‘blocked’ thanks to Moscow, but the results of that blocking spill over in our general direction in the form of refugees and wider instability?

Plenty for Secretary Tillerson to mull over on the long flight back to Washington.