Trumplomacy hits Russian wall

By Barbara Plett Usher
BBC State Department correspondent

image copyrightReuters
image captionOnce popular in Russia, Mr Trump is now seen as having moved "to the dark side"

Did January happen on another planet?

Reminder: that's when lawmakers questioned whether Rex Tillerson's history of doing business deals with Russia would make him too cosy with the Kremlin to represent US interests as America's top diplomat.

Fast forward to Mr Tillerson's reception on Wednesday by his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.

Mr Lavrov levelled a litany of complaints about the "extremely ambiguous and contradictory" policy talk in Washington and "unlawful" US strikes in Syria.

Then he twisted the knife a bit, pointedly noting that many key State Department posts have yet to be filled by the new administration and "hence it is not easy to quickly receive clarification on current and future issues".

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His brusque tone was triggered by harsh US rhetoric against Russia for its continued support of the Syrian regime after the chemical weapons attack last week, dished out in no small measure by the secretary of state.

Mr Lavrov also turned his pique on members of the State Department press corps who shouted questions. "Who brought you up?" he asked one of my intrepid colleagues. "Who gave you your manners?"

His spokeswoman Maria Zakharova followed up with a Facebook post that described American journalists "screaming 'Mr Lavrov Mr Lavrov' angrily from all sides".

"The mansion shuddered, its century-old firmaments do not remember such a 'bazaar'," she wrote.

image copyrightReuters
image captionMr Tillerson found his Russian counterpart in robust form

That's not quite the press event I remember. But there are two issues behind this dramatic put-down.

In the background is the disappointed retreat of Russia's euphoric reception of Donald Trump's election victory. It brought expectations of a relationship reset, perhaps a grand bargain that would lead to lifting the sanctions imposed over Moscow's intervention in Ukraine.

Trump's top officials eventually burst that bubble, making clear the US would hold the line on Ukraine.

Then the roiling controversy over alleged Russian interference in the presidential election turned Moscow into a toxic subject in Washington.

Still, Mr Tillerson's trip was much anticipated, with Mr Lavrov joking he would teach his inexperienced counterpart how to dance on the diplomatic stage.

image copyrightReuters
image captionPresident Putin and Mr Tillerson, then Exxon Mobil CEO, meet at a Russian refinery in 2012

In the foreground is the US military strike on a Syrian airbase in response to the chemical attack. That signalled a U-turn by Mr Trump, according to one TV show host, Dmitry Kiselyov: "He is clearly no longer the man whom so many people used to like."

"The honeymoon between Moscow and Washington ended in Syria abruptly," opined another, Irada Zeynalova. "Trump has moved over to the dark side."

The strike rattled the Russians, who wondered if this was the opening salvo in a Trump strategy to unseat their ally. No, it turns out.

But the pivot to blaming Russia was also an unpleasant surprise. US officials ratcheted up pressure for Moscow to stop supporting a "murderous regime".

image copyrightEPA
image captionMr Lavrov was unimpressed with US journalists' manners

And Mr Tillerson called them out for failing to guarantee the agreement to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons, struck in 2013. He also twisted the knife a bit, suggesting they had been "incompetent" or even "outmanoeuvred" by the Syrians.

Did he overplay his hand and trigger a backlash? - because President Vladimir Putin did dig in on support for the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Was he making the most of America's military leverage to put Moscow on notice?

Or is he among friends?

By the end of the day and after a meeting between Mr Tillerson and Mr Putin, Mr Lavrov was sounding less combative.

"They have a working relationship," said a State Department Official. "When one calls the other, he gets a call back in a minute."

But the two were as far apart on Syria and other contentious issues as when they started out.

"This is the beginning of the beginning" of fixing the relationship, said the official. As for a possible meeting between Mr Putin and Mr Trump: "I don't think we're there yet."

Which means I will hold on to my Trump matryoshka doll as a souvenir of this trip. There's no guarantee they'll still be on the shelves next time I return.

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