Most reports on U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow earlier this week have focused on the negative. Commentators have decried the inability of the United States and Russia to find a way forward in Syria and Ukraine, highlighting the harsh rhetoric from both Moscow and Washington surrounding Wednesday’s meetings. U.S. President Donald Trump told a press conference immediately afterward that relations between the two countries “may be at an all-time low,” repeating a phrase used by Tillerson at his own joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow. Lavrov used that press conference to lambaste Washington for recent U.S. military interventions and past attempts at regime change. Although Trump’s Thursday morning whiplash tweet—which included “Things will work out fine between the U.S.A. and Russia” and “there will be lasting peace!”—may have been a bit too optimistic, Tillerson’s visit actually achieved some successes.
We need to start by putting the visit in context. On April 7, just four days before Tillerson arrived in Moscow, the United States launched its first ever strike against the regime of Syrian President (and Russian military ally) Bashar al-Assad. It did so after determining that Syrian military airplanes were responsible for a chemical weapons attack three days earlier in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, a rebel-held area of Idlib province. Both of these events were astonishing. Assad brazenly violated the global Chemical Weapons Convention, which he joined under Russian pressure in 2013. And Trump—who had decried U.S. military intervention abroad throughout his election campaign and had tweeted in all caps to former U.S. President Barack Obama in 2013, “Do not attack Syria…if you do, many very bad things will happen”—seemed to turn on a dime, as 59 U.S. cruise missiles landed on Syria’s Shayrat air base.