US President Donald Trump welcomed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to the White House on May 10 after the Russian official had held talks with State Secretary Rex Tillerson. It was Lavrov’s first trip to Washington since 2013. The foreign minister is the highest-ranking Russian official Donald Trump met with as president. The two met privately in the Oval Office – an honor reserved for distinguished guests – alongside Tillerson and Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak. The event is part of preparations for the Russia-US top level event on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, in July.
The meeting was closed to media but the pictures show the reception was warm. The US president said, «We had a very, very good meeting with Mr. Lavrov, and I thought it was very good». In a later statement, the White House said «further emphasized his desire to build a better relationship between the United States and Russia». The president «raised the possibility of broader cooperation on resolving conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere». During the talks he returned to a campaign theme by emphasizing his desire for better relations with Moscow.
Syria topped the agenda. Discussions included the Russian plan to create safe or de-escalation zones in that country. So far, Washington has reacted cautiously, especially given its misgivings about Iran’s role. The zones would not cover areas where the US-led coalition is fighting the Islamic State group, but many questions remain unanswered. US officials say they need to work out how those zones would be patrolled and enforced. The zone in the south is of particular interest for the United States as it would stabilize the border area between Syria and Washington’s closest allies – Jordan and Israel.
The Russian minister said the idea of safe zones initially belonged to President Trump and Russia was simply implementing his idea «in practical terms». This approach can be construed as a sign that the US may be closer to working with Russia in Syria to implement the idea put forward by Russia, Turkey, and Iran. State Secretary Tillerson mentioned "interim zones of stability" in an address to the Global Coalition to Counter Islamic State. It gives a hope that the concept will be endorsed by the UN Security Council to make it the first international effort backed by a solid legal basis. Russia has been circulating a draft UN Security Council resolution endorsing the Astana agreement on Syria’s zones of de-escalation.
The agenda also included Ukraine, the Israel-Palestinian peace process and Afghanistan. «There is a desire to move into the direction of settlement of all these problems», Lavrov said. Both President Trump and President Putin are willing to attain concrete results that would help removing problems from the international agenda. The minister appreciated that the Trump administration was trying to reach practical solutions to problems and was not as ideological as the previous administration. «We discussed specific issues, and we didn’t even raise those absurd issues,» he said referring to the hacking scandal. According to him, allegations of Russian meddling in the US election didn’t arise. «Neither of us brought up this bacchanalia», he said.
The Russia’s top diplomat noted that the previous administration spoiled the bilateral ties. He spoke more favorably about the current team. «The Trump administration, and the president himself and the secretary of state – and I got confirmation of that once again today – are business people, and they want to make a deal,» Lavrov said.
Certain aspects, which negatively affect the relationship, like taking over the Russian embassy’s property in the US, were touched upon. It’s a natural thing for Russia to do. It would be strange if such an egregious violation of the Vienna Convention by the previous US administration had not been mentioned. What really matters is that neither party said there were insurmountable hurdles on the way of normalizing the relations. No ultimatums were exchanged. If they were, it would mean the sides are preparing for deterioration of the relationship and making public statements about it as they have nothing to lose. It did not happen.
The process of gradual normalization of the relations has been launched. The parties are talking and making plans for future contacts. They are exchanging views on a host of issues. It’s very important that Afghanistan was mentioned as part of the agenda. That’s where a breakthrough is possible.
There is a great unused potential of public diplomacy. There are working groups to come up with proposals on making progress in different areas. Academic exchanges can be intensified. Retired diplomats and military can share their experience and facilitate the process. Media could make their contribution into improving the relationship.
The time is right to address the erosion of arms control and non-proliferation. There are so many hot issues on the agenda waiting to be addressed. Progress in one area may lead to forward movement in others. Lavrov’s visit was a timely step ahead on the way to building mutually beneficial, business-like and pragmatic relations.