Russia's grand plans to change its relationship with the West this year have hit quite a few snags so far. At the start of the year, Moscow looked poised to divide the Western front against it by widening divisions within Europe while also cozying up to the new and seemingly friendlier presidential administration in the United States. But Russia's efforts to sow seeds of discord in Europe and the United States through political meddling and to improve its negotiating position with its military campaign in Syria have not had the desired effect. In fact, they have only further strained Russia's relations with the West. Now, the Kremlin is bracing itself for yet another bump in the road as Rex Tillerson heads to Moscow on Tuesday for his first official visit as U.S. secretary of state.
Tillerson entered his post in U.S. President Donald Trump's administration with a deep knowledge of Russia — the good and the bad. The former ExxonMobil CEO guided the oil giant's dealings in the country during his time at the company's helm, and in the process, he established a good working relationship with the Kremlin. Even so, Tillerson wasn't afraid to stand up to the government in Moscow when necessary. Russian President Vladimir Putin met with the American oilman in the course of negotiations both friendly and tough, an experience that gave Tillerson unique insight into how the leader, and the system he presides over, work. The secretary of state's history with the Kremlin provoked speculation that he would help usher in a detente between Washington and Moscow.
Instead, Tillerson has taken a tough stance on Russia. He announced March 31 that sanctions against the country would stay in place until Moscow relinquishes control of Crimea, and he has also called for an end to the fighting in eastern Ukraine. Then over the past week, a series of developments dispelled any lingering notions of a budding reconciliation between Washington and Moscow.
Russia railed against the United States after Trump ordered airstrikes against the Syrian government on Thursday in response to a chemical attack in Idlib. Washington, meanwhile, reportedly has launched an investigation into whether Moscow had a hand in the Idlib attack. The White House has since raised the possibility of expanding its sanctions regime against Russia for the country's continued support of Syrian President Bashar al Assad's administration, according to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. Because Tillerson recused himself from the issue in light of his past dealings in Russia, sanctions won't technically be on the agenda during Tuesday's meetings in Moscow. Regardless, the Kremlin's goal of negotiating an end to, or at least a reduction in, the punitive measures now seems well out of reach.
The United States isn't alone in stepping up the pressure on Russia, either. During a meeting of the G-7's foreign ministers earlier today, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson proposed increasing sanctions on Russia, an idea Canada seconded. Johnson also canceled his planned trip to Moscow — the first for a British foreign minister in five years — citing "fundamental changes to the situation due to events in Syria."
Similarly, the rising tension between Russia and the United States has led to questions over Tillerson's trip to Moscow. Previously, U.S. secretaries of state, including Tillerson's predecessor, John Kerry, often met with the Russian head of state during their tenure. Considering Tillerson's long history with Putin, the media have hounded the U.S. and Russian foreign ministries alike to find out whether the two men would follow suit this week. Russian officials deflected the question for weeks, refusing to confirm or deny that such a meeting was on the books. But over the weekend, the media got hold of conflicting versions of Tillerson's itinerary, according to Voice of America, leading to speculation that Putin had canceled on the secretary of state. Though the U.S. State Department and Putin's spokesman have since clarified that a meeting between the two was never actually scheduled, it seems that plans had been in the works for Tillerson to have audience with Putin.
Contrary to its ambitions for the year, Russia is under even more pressure from the West today than it was at the end of 2016. This week's talks with the United States will be critical if Moscow hopes to get some kind of negotiation in the works to avoid further isolation. In case the discussions fall through, though, Moscow is likely exploring other ways to regain its footing, whether through further talks or through new conflicts it can use to gain leverage with the West.