When Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov arrives in Washington today for talks with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—and an Oval Office meeting with President Donald Trump—the moment will hardly be ripe for diplomacy between Russia and the United States.
Washington is in an uproar over Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey amid his bureau’s probe into contacts between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin during the 2016 election. U.S. and Russian officials have been trading harsh words since Trump ordered a missile strike in Syria last month. The Kremlin recently declared that U.S.-Russia relations are at “their worst period since the end of the Cold War.”
But Lavrov’s visit to the White House—his first since 2013—is a sign that Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who spoke by phone last week, are determined to forge better relations despite strong political headwinds.
“The symbolism does seem significant,” said Samuel Charap, a former State Department official now with the Rand Corporation. Lavrov was not welcome in President Barack Obama’s Washington after Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea.
“At least on a diplomatic level there’s a degree of normalcy that the Obama administration was trying to deny Russia,” Charap added.
Lavrov is stopping in Washington on his way to Alaska, where he and Tillerson will participate in a multinational Arctic Council meeting. Russia’s TASS news service reported that the two men originally planned to meet one-on-one in Fairbanks but added the Washington sit-down at the last minute.
It’s unclear when the meeting with Trump was set, but it is customary for the president to receive a visiting Russian foreign minister. Tillerson met with Putin during his April 12 visit to the Kremlin.
Lavrov’s visit follows last week’s talk between Trump and Putin, during which the two leaders discussed a new Russian plan to de-escalate Syria’s civil war through regional cease-fires. The State Department has said that Tillerson and Lavrov would discuss both Syria and Ukraine.
Sources said they are also likely to discuss the prospects for the first meeting between Trump and Putin, which Russian media has suggested could happen around the July G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany—though the White House has been tight-lipped about the prospect.
In an interview with a Russian television station last week, Lavrov said that because expectations would be high for a Trump-Putin meeting to “deliver specific results… it needs to be prepared thoroughly. We are working on that right now.”
Trump officials understand the awkwardness of meeting top Russian officials amid charges Trump associates colluded with the Kremlin during the 2016 campaign.
But former diplomats and Russia experts say there’s no ignoring a nuclear-armed power that plays an active—and often aggressive—role in world affairs.
“It’s the paradox of dealing with one of the world’s most important countries. You can’t not deal with them because of the cards that they hold,” said Matthew Rojansky, a Russia expert at the Wilson Center in Washington.
Tillerson himself said as much during remarks to State Department employees last week.
“The two greatest nuclear powers in the world cannot have this kind of relationship. We have to change it,” Tillerson said.
“If we can find space for something we feel we can begin to rebuild some level of trust, because today there is almost no trust between us. Can we build some level of trust?” Tillerson asked rhetorically.
What’s unclear is how much Trump may still hope to build diplomatic momentum towards the kind of partnership with Putin that he repeatedly promised during the campaign.
At the same time, Putin hopes that better relations with the U.S.—premised on a joint campaign against terrorism—can relieve western sanctions imposed on his country over Russian aggression in Ukraine and elevate Russia’s stature on the world stage.
But Trump will soon face new pressure to maintain a hard line on Russia. Later this month he travels to Europe for meetings with G7 and NATO officials who mostly take a hard line against Putin—especially in the wake of suspected Russian efforts to swing France’s May 7 presidential election.
The Kremlin has denied trying to interfere in the French or U.S. elections.
“I believe it’s important to engage Russia at high levels,” said Jon Finer, who served as State Department chief of staff under Secretary of State John Kerry. “And I would hope that among the important issues that get raised with Foreign Minister Lavrov are what should be deep concerns about Russia’s continued interference in our democratic processes, and those of other countries.”