For the first time as Secretary, Rex Tillerson addressed State employees Wednesday and covered a wide range of topics, one of which was relations with Russia.
When he had gone to Moscow to meet with the Russian foreign minister following the U.S.’s missile strike on Syria, Tillerson said that relations between the U.S. and Russia were at an all-time low. He said that President Putin agreed.
But Tillerson said that now the U.S. must work to rebuild our relationship. “The two greatest nuclear powers in the world cannot have this kind of relationship,” he said. “We have to change it.” Here’s what he said:
REX TILLERSON: The next kind of area of priority is our re-engagement with Russia. Obviously, they are part of the engagement in Syria, but we have other issues with Russia, as you all well know, in Europe, and the situation in Ukraine. As I know many of you heard from my trip to Moscow, characterized to President Putin that the relationship between our two nations was the lowest it’s been since the Cold War. He did not disagree. He shrugged his shoulders and nodded in agreement. And I said it’s spiraling down, it’s getting worse. And my comment to him was you — we cannot have, the two greatest nuclear powers in the world cannot have this kind of relationship. We have to change it.
And so we have a number of efforts underway to first stabilize the relationship. And Deputy Secretary — acting Deputy Secretary Shannon is leading a working group effort to see if we can address some of the things that are just irritating the relationship, that make it hard for us to talk to one another even in civil tones. So we’re working hard on that and we’re hoping to begin to solve some of that, while Foreign Minister Lavrov and I, under the direction of President Putin and now President Trump, coming out of the call yesterday are going to continue to see if we can work together on the first big area of cooperation, which would be Syria, and can we achieve a cease-fire that will hold long enough for us to get a peace process underway.
I don’t want to say we’re off to a great start on this, because it’s very early stages. I don’t know where it will go. So I’ve got a bilateral with Foreign Minister Lavrov in Alaska next week on the margins of the Arctic Council. Both our presidents have charged us to take this further and see where we can go with it. So obviously, close coordination with the Department of Defense, with our intelligence agencies, and importantly our allies in the region, because we want them to always know what we’re doing, because we’re going to need their support as well.
So a lot of work ahead of us on the Russia engagement — work some small things, can we work one big thing together. If we can find space for something we feel we can begin to rebuild some level of trust, because today there is almost no trust between us. Can we build some level of trust? We’ve got a long list of things to work on from our arms agreements and issues we have with our nuclear arms agreements, to obviously, getting to Ukraine, Crimea, and other places where Russia is not being particularly helpful today.
So that’s what we’re hoping, is that we can begin to build a way in which we can learn how to work with one another. I don’t know whether we can or not. We’ll — we’re going to find out.
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