-- The Trump administration is preparing a response to Moscow's demands that the U.S. drastically cut its diplomatic presence in Russia by Sept. 1, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters Monday.
The comments came one day after Tillerson met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of a major summit in Manila, the Philippines, hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Russia seized two facilities and ordered the U.S. to cut its diplomatic presence by more than 700 people after Congress passed a bill imposing additional sanctions on Russia last month. While Tillerson declined to provide details on the U.S. response, he said he questioned Lavrov extensively on the issue.
The new sanctions law ties Trump’s hands by forbidding him to lift or change sanctions without congressional approval, amid concerns the Trump administration was cozying up to Russia despite its efforts to undermine Western democracies.
It’s a critique that has been bolstered by Trump’s praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his skepticism about the finding of the intelligence community that Russia meddled in the 2016 election to hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign and boost his.
Instead, Tillerson said, he tried to “help” Lavrov and the Russian delegation “understand just how serious this incident had been and how seriously it had damaged the relationship” during their meeting Sunday — their first face-to-face discussions since the latest tensions and their fifth to date.
Tillerson added that while the Russian hack of Democratic National Committee computers before the presidential election caused “serious mistrust,” the Trump administration will continue seeking cooperation with Moscow and cooperation is a necessity for the two nuclear-armed countries.
“We want to work with them on areas that are serious national security interest to us while at the same time having this extraordinary issue of mistrust that divides us,” Tillerson said. “That’s just what we, in the diplomatic part of our relationship, are required to do.”
“I don’t think it is useful to just cut everything off on one single issue,” he added in reference to the hacking.
Russia has welcomed the increased cooperation, with Lavrov telling Russian media Sunday, “There’s no alternative to that,” according to Reuters.
The two governments are looking to cooperate on Syria and Ukraine in particular. Tillerson’s special envoy for Ukraine, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker, is heading to Moscow soon for talks amid a stalemate in the conflict and an uptick in violence. Discussions are continuing on expanding a cease-fire brokered by the U.S., Russia and Jordan in a small corner of Syria's southwest, weeks after it was implemented.