US President Donald Trump will receive at the White House on Wednesday Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, with the conflict in Syria expected to dominate talks.
The meeting will mark the highest level, face-to-face contact with Russia of the American leader’s young presidency. It would also signal that the two countries have improved ties that Trump recently described as being at an “all-time low.”
Trump’s talks with Lavrov will take place after the Russian’s meetings earlier in the day with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Besides Syria, the meeting will be impossible to separate from the Trump administration’s unfolding political drama in Washington, where FBI and congressional investigations are looking into possible collusion between Trump campaign associates and the Kremlin related to last year’s presidential election. US intelligence agencies have asserted that Moscow meddled in the election to help Trump’s chances of victory.
The stigma of the Russia probes has been impossible for Trump to shake. Trump on Tuesday abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey, ousting the nation’s top law enforcement official in the midst of the bureau’s investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia.
The sacking prompted angry Democrats to call for the Russia probe to be placed in the hands an independent prosecutor or commission. The uproar seemed certain to complicate Lavrov’s mission in search of US support for a Russian plan to create safe zones in Syria.
Trump’s hopes for a possible rapprochement with Moscow, so regularly repeated during the campaign, have been derailed. Ties soured further in April after the US blamed a Russian ally, Syrian regime leader Bashar Assad, for a deadly chemical weapons attack on civilians and Trump ordered that some 60 cruise missiles be fired at a Syrian air base in response.
After Tillerson visited Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lavrov in Moscow on April 12, Trump said flatly, “Right now we’re not getting along with Russia at all.”
Still, Tillerson’s meeting provided a blueprint for how the former Cold War foes might go about improving ties.
On Syria, both governments want to end a civil war that has killed up to 400,000 people, contributed to a global refugee crisis and allowed the ISIS terrorist group to emerge as a global threat. The continued fighting between rebels and Assad’s regime has complicated US efforts to defeat ISIS.
Lavrov will be coming to the American capital with a Russian plan to end the violence, after hashing out an agreement with Iran and Turkey last week.
It focuses on the creation of four de-escalation zones. Critical details still need to be finalized and the US response has been cautious, with top officials such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis saying they are still studying the concept and its various unanswered questions. The would-be safe zones would not cover areas where the US-led coalition is fighting ISIS.
Despite the lack of clarity, the possibility of a meeting between Trump and Lavrov would in itself be a sign of some progress.
The Russian diplomat has not visited Washington at all since 2013, a year before Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and two years before it intervened militarily in Syria to help Assad remain in power.
Since the end of Barack Obama’s presidency the United States has gradually withdrawn from the Syrian diplomatic process, leaving Russia to take the lead. It was not part of a deal by government backers Russia and Iran, and rebel supporter Turkey, signed last Thursday in the Kazakh capital Astana on establishing safe zones in Syria.
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Monday that Moscow expected “above all coming to a common understanding on the need for de-escalation in Syria.”
“If we manage to find… a common position with the United States on this issue, it will be the most important result,” he said, quoted by the state news agency Interfax.