Tillerson, Dunford to Meet with Russian Counterpart

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 2/15/2017, 10:19 a.m.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford meet face to face ...
ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson

Tillerson, Dunford to meet with Russian counterpart

By Laura Koran and Ryan Browne

CNN

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford meet face to face with their Russian counterparts Thursday, as the Trump administration evaluates the future direction of US-Russian relations.

Tillerson, a former oil executive who was confirmed as Secretary of State two weeks ago, departed Wednesday for a G-20 ministerial meeting in Bonn, Germany -- his inaugural international trip as the United States' top diplomat. He'll be joined in Bonn by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and representatives from the world's other major economies.

The Russian Foreign Ministry announced Wednesday that Tillerson and Lavrov will meet on the sidelines of the conference on Thursday. It will be their first such meeting since Tillerson took office.

Tillerson's trip comes as the Trump administration is seeking to reassure skittish allies in Europe the US has their backs, all while exploring new areas for cooperation with Russia as advocated by President Donald Trump over opposition from some members of his own party.

The White House is in turmoil after National Security Adviser Michael Flynn's resignation over questions of the nature of conversations with Russia on sanctions before taking up his administration role. Congress is now investigating various aspects of Russia's alleged interference in the US election while members question Trump's own relationship to the country.

US allies in Europe are looking for indications from the Trump administration that the US will take a stand when it comes to countering Russian aggression in parts of Eastern Europe, particularly in Ukraine, where violence has flared in recent weeks between government forces and Russian-backed separatist groups.

European diplomats are watching the new US officials all the more closely after Trump's disparagement of NATO and questions about the utility of sanctions. Similarly, Western military officials are closely following Defense Secretary James Mattis' participation in the NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels and Munich Security Conference this week as well.

It remains to be seen whether the Cabinet secretaries will outline any specific shifts in US positions -- despite Trump's rhetoric before and after the election -- both on European issues as well as the Middle East.

The ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen are expected to be a major focus of discussion on the sidelines of official meetings. Trump has long criticized the Obama administration for its approach to the Syrian crisis, suggesting he would reconsider providing aid to moderate groups taking on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and take more aggressive measures against ISIS.

It's still unclear exactly how the new administration will go about changing course in Syria, and whether doing so will involve additional cooperation with Russia -- which provides military support to the Assad regime.

But even as Tillerson's plane was taking off in Washington, the Pentagon announced the meeting between Dunford and his Russian counterpart Valeriy Gerasimov, which will take place Thursday in Baku, Azerbaijan.