Russia seized on the announcement of Rex Tillerson’s first visit to Moscow as U.S. secretary of state by setting out an unusually detailed agenda for talks that it said aimed to eliminate “numerous irritants” in relations.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov plans to discuss the fight against terrorism and the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan and Ukraine with Tillerson on April 12, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said in a statement after the State Department announced the visit. The situation in North Korea, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and arms control are also on the agenda, it said.
“We expect that the visit of the new U.S. secretary of state will help to put Russian-American relations on the trajectory of sustainable development and improve mutual understanding,” the ministry said in its statement. “This would be in the interests not only of our peoples, but of the whole world, and would help strengthen global stability.”
Tillerson’s trip to Moscow is the first by a top U.S. official since Donald Trump became president in January after promising improved relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the election campaign. Since then, the White House has been besieged by allegations that Russia meddled in the elections to help the Trump campaign win, claims he’s rejected.
Putin regularly met with previous secretaries of state in Russia and Tillerson’s visit will offer him the first opportunity to meet a Trump administration official in person.
FBI Director James Comey last month told a congressional committee examining the claims of Kremlin meddling that the bureau is probing Russian government interference in the presidential election and “whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”
Tillerson will travel to Moscow from Italy, where he’ll attend the Group of Seven foreign ministers meeting, to discuss Syria, Ukraine, North Korea and counterterrorism efforts with Lavrov as well as bilateral relations, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement. “This trip is part of our effort to maintain direct lines of communication with senior Russian officials and to ensure U.S. views are clearly conveyed,” he said.
The controversy in the U.S. over Russia has soured early optimism in the Kremlin that Trump will be able to make good on his pledge to restore relations that had all but broken down under his predecessor Barack Obama. Ties with Washington are “almost at zero,” though Russia considers the U.S. “as a superpower with which we want to establish very good relations,” Putin told an international Arctic forum in Arkhangelsk last week.
“Everything else is lies and fiction against Russia,” Putin said. “We’re not interfering there in any way.”
Putin awarded Tillerson with Russia’s Order of Friendship in 2013 for his “big contribution to developing cooperation in the energy sector” as head of ExxonMobil. Tillerson’s visit as the top U.S. diplomat offers a chance to eliminate “numerous irritants in bilateral relations,” including the arrests of Russian citizens abroad by U.S. law-enforcement, the violations of rights of Russian children adopted by U.S. nationals, and obstacles placed in way of the work of Russian diplomats, the Foreign Ministry said.
While Trump called Putin to offer condolences and support after Monday’s terrorist bombing in St. Petersburg that killed 14 people, they’ve yet to announce a date for their first meeting. The Kremlin has said that may take place at the Group of 20 summit in Germany in July. There are no “specific options” for a planned meeting between the two presidents so far, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Wednesday, according to the Interfax news service.
Bloomberg’s Holly Rosenkrantz contributed.