Top issues on the table as Tillerson heads to Moscow amid escalating war of words

Tillerson has had an escalating war of words with Moscow.

— -- It’s a visit by the highest-level Trump administration official to Russia so far, and it could not come at a tenser time.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will touch down in Moscow on Tuesday, just days after the Trump administration ordered missile strikes on a Russian ally, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, for deploying chemical weapons against his own people and killing dozens.

It’s a charge Assad and Russia deny, and Russian officials have condemned the U.S. response with a volley of harsh words, including a remarkable joint statement with Iran and Hezbollah that threatens retaliation for any new strikes.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned the U.S. was “on the edge of military clashes with Russia.”

Tillerson said he was “disappointed” but “not too surprised” by the Russian reaction, blaming Russia in part for the attack by not ensuring that Assad’s chemical weapons were eliminated.

“Whether Russia was complicit here or whether they were simply incompetent or whether they got outwitted by the Bashar al-Assad regime — you would have to ask the Russians that question — but clearly, they have failed in their commitment to the international community,” Tillerson said on CBS on Sunday.

Starting tomorrow, he’ll be able to ask them that question himself when he arrives in Moscow for meetings with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other Russian officials. There’s a chance he will meet with President Vladimir Putin as well.

Tackling Syria

With the rhetoric escalating, Syria will likely be the dominant topic of discussions.

Tillerson is headed to Moscow looking to talk, trying to persuade Russia to abandon support for the Assad regime and help the U.S. reach a peaceful settlement to the Syrian civil war.

“I’m hopeful that we can have constructive talks with the Russian government, with Foreign Minister Lavrov and have Russia be supportive of a process that will lead to a stable Syria,” Tillerson said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.

How he can drive a wedge between the Kremlin and its longtime ally in the Middle East is unclear. Russia’s only access to a Mediterranean port is in Syria, and its troops on the ground are an important overseas power base.

What may also hamper hard-charging negotiations is the message Tillerson delivers from his boss. President Trump has not blamed Russia as publicly as his secretary of state or especially his U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. It is unclear if Tillerson has a directive to drive Russia to the negotiating table.

Combating terrorism

Tillerson has made clear that the administration’s priority in Syria is still ISIS, and with Russian jets patrolling the skies, the U.S. needs some level of cooperation with Russia to accomplish that mission.

But already the strikes on Assad have taken a toll on that front. The Russians said they shut down the hotline the two countries used to prevent midair collisions between U.S. and Russian planes, although U.S. officials have disputed that and said talks are ongoing.

Trump has expressed a desire to work with Russia to fight terrorism, a threat that Russians know well, just one week after a bombing on the St. Petersburg subway killed 14 people. The attack seemed to put the issue at the top of the agenda — until Assad’s chemical attack and America’s airstrikes.

“I say it’s better to get along with Russia than not, and if Russia helps us in the fight against ISIS, which is a major fight, and Islamic terrorism all over the world — major fight — that’s a good thing,” Trump told Fox News in February.

Before the strikes, a senior State Department official told ABC News that cooperation hadn’t happened yet because “Russia has very low credibility … Given the past history, no one would be anxious to move forward without working out” how Russia could meet its commitments and improve its credibility.

“The secretary’s role is to explore those opportunities and then report back on whether he thinks the Russians are prepared to address some of the issues of concern,” the official added.

Now it’s unclear if Trump will get his wish, with the two sides seemingly farther apart.

Supporting NATO and Ukraine

It may seem like ages ago, but when this trip was announced, there was outrage that Tillerson would be flying to Moscow and missing a meeting with NATO foreign ministers as allegations of ties between team Trump and Russia swirled.

But after rescheduling the NATO summit and meeting with his NATO counterparts, Tillerson made clear America’s commitment to the trans-Atlantic alliance and heads to Moscow prepared to discuss Russian aggression, according to a senior State Department official.

“The secretary said when he was at the ministerial [meeting] that the NATO alliance is also fundamental to countering both nonviolent but at times violent Russian agitation and aggression. He also said that every country has the right to chart its own future, including Russia’s neighbors. He discussed Russia’s aggression in the region and noted that its actions in Ukraine shook the very foundations of security and stability in Europe,” the official said.

Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and continues to arm and support separatists in eastern Ukraine. In response, the U.S. and others have sanctioned Russian businesses and individuals, while NATO members, including the U.S., have deployed troops to Eastern European countries like Poland for training exercises.

Meddling in elections

Hanging over any interaction between the Trump administration and the Kremlin is the finding of 17 U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee and some of its top officials.

For Tillerson, it’s an issue he raised once before with Lavrov and one he is expected to discuss again, according to a senior State Department official.

“He sees it as one of several areas where Russia has been either violating international norms and/or creating tensions unnecessarily that erode trust,” the official said.

“We will continue to talk with them about how this undermines any hope of improving relations not just with the United States,” Tillerson said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “It’s pretty evident that they are taking similar tactics into electoral processes throughout Europe, and so they’re really undermining any hope for improved relations with many European countries as well.”