Both U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attended the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in the Philippines this weekend.
On Sunday, the two had what Tillerson described as a “lengthy” meeting on the sidelines of the conference. Both emerged from the meeting with cautious flickers of optimism that U.S.-Russia relations might be improved.
This was the first substantial meeting between the two nations since President Trump signed a bill imposing new sanctions against Russia, and Moscow responded by dismissing a large number of American diplomatic personnel from Russia. Both President Trump and Russian officials have remarked that U.S.-Russia relations have deteriorated to historic lows.
Lavrov said Tillerson asked about the expulsion of some 750 American diplomats from Russia. Lavrov said he “provided an explanation” about what would happen to these diplomats to the Secretary of State, but he did not share this explanation with reporters.
Lavrov also said he and Tillerson talked about the North Korean nuclear situation and agreed to arrange a meeting between their respective deputies for further discussion.
“I don’t think it is useful to just cut everything off on one single issue,” the more taciturn Tillerson said on Monday.
“These are two very large countries and we should find places that we can work together, let’s try to work together. Places we have our differences, we’re going to have to continue to find a way to address those,” he continued.
Tillerson said he strove to convince Lavrov that Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election “seriously damaged the relationship between the U.S., and the American people and the Russian people,” creating “serious mistrust between our two countries.”
According to Tillerson, Lavrov additionally showed “some willingness” to talk about ending the three-year situation in Ukraine, where Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula and has supported separatist insurgents. Arrangements were made for Kurt Volker, the U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, to visit Moscow for talks.
Tillerson said Volker’s appointment was part of the Trump administration’s commitment to maintain “full visibility to all parties” on Ukraine negotiations,” making it clear that “we are not trying to cut some kind of deal on the side.”
“The fact that we want to work with them on areas that are of serious national security interest to us, and at the same time having this extraordinary issue of mistrust that divides us, that is just what we in the diplomatic part of our relationship are required to do,” Tillerson said of the Russians.