Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Lavrov-Tillerson: a fraught relationship

By Patricia H Kushlis
Tillerson-Lavrov Moscow April 2017 RFE-RL photoI was appalled when I watched the video clip of Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s ill-mannered behavior towards US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the lunch in his honor in Moscow on April 12, 2017.  Lavrov came across as boorish, imperious and obnoxious.  His demeanor reminded me of the worst Soviet behavior when I worked in the city and had to deal with Soviet officials during the Cold War on behalf of the US government and large contingent of American scholars and students on the official bilateral educational exchange programs.  These agreements had been negotiated and renegotiated between the two governments over the years since the Kitchen Debate between Khrushchev and Nixon in Moscow in 1958.
Lavrov’s comments to Tillerson were unbecoming, designed to intimidate and no guest should be treated like this in public or private.  Had I been Tillerson, I would have left before the soup had been served.  I would also have departed from Moscow for points West and not stuck around to be kept cooling my heels for several hours waiting to see whether Vladimir Putin would deign to talk to me.  Exactly what did Tillerson get out of these meetings? Do we know?  Perhaps a rude awakening that dealing with the Kremlin as a top US government official was more difficult than as a businessman seeking a deal that both parties wanted?  
Since the Trump administration has kept the established media in the dark, the only way we find out is through the proverbial leaks to the media.  But those indicate the meetings did not go well.
On top of that, Tillerson’s overall reticence to brief the US media – or even take members of the press along – has left an information void which the Russians have been all too eager to fill. Is this how we should be learning about the contents of his contacts with his Russian counterpart?  Never was that way before: Usually quite the opposite.  What ever happened to the US side of the story?
It is possible that the Russian treatment of the new Secretary of State last month was foremost designed to demonstrate to the Russian population that the Russian government had the upper hand in foreign relations but as an outsider watching the charade unfold the behavior demonstrated by the Russian hosts did not sit well.  Hard to say.
A roller-coaster ride
Over the years, the US-Russian relationship has been a roller-coaster ride with its ups and downs:  Its peaks and valleys.  Often it was by nature strained.  During the Soviet era, the Communist ideology was a pretext for Soviet expansionism; now that is gone and raw geographic expansionism  - which predates 1917 by centuries – has become Moscow’s driving objective.  This clash of power and domination is primarily focused on Europe and the Middle East.         
One the one hand, such a troubled relationship does not need to be further exacerbated by unnecessary Russian boorish behavior.  On the other hand, I fail to see why Tillerson decided to make the Moscow visit in the first place despite his apparently lengthy meeting with Putin but only after being kept waiting for what was it – two hours.  That, in my view, just demonstrates the naivety (at best) on the part of the Trump administration.  In fact, when this trip was in the planning stages, Tillerson had first decided to blow off his first NATO Foreign Ministers meeting - foregoing a meeting with the allies in favor of a meeting with the Kremlin.  A bad decision which was ultimately and fortunately turned around. 
Ambassador Malcolm Toon’s basic rules for dealing with Moscow
Not long ago, I came across an April 11, 1985 newspaper article I had saved from the San Francisco Chronicle.  It was entitled “Open Forum:  Malcolm Toon.” Toon had served in the US Foreign Service as a Soviet specialist and had ended his career as US Ambassador to Moscow during the Cold War.  This included the first few months when I worked at the US Embassy in the cultural section.  In the Open Forum article, he laid out his following principles, or basic rules, for dealing with the Soviet Union.  Toon was known for being hardline anti-Soviet but the rules he sets down below are, in fact, basic ways of operating when dealing with an adversary and in particular one in the Kremlin.  
I think they are worth repeating because although times have changed, we should not forget that it was the Russians who ran the Soviet Union and much of Toon’s advice is just plain common sense based on his own considerable practical experience.
So here follows Ambassador Toon’s advice to the Reagan administration not all that long before Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.  Just substitute Russia for Soviet Union when reading Toon’s list below and you'll see what I mean.
“We should recast our relationship to reflect its essentially adversarial nature and within the following parameters:
  • We should agree with our allies on an illusion-free assessment of the Soviet threat.
  • We should have the self-confidence to carry on an effective dialogue with the Soviets.
  • We should have the courage and wisdom to forge solutions to the problems that divide us, bearing in mind that our proposals, if they are to be negotiable, must be perceived by the Soviets as not to their disadvantage.
  • We should recognize that the Soviets pay attention to what we do, not what we say. Adequate military underpinning is essential if our policies are to be credible.
  • We should have a clear understanding of our vital interests so that we know when we can compromise and when we must stand firm.
  • We must not seek bilateral agreements with the Soviets at the expense of our friends and allies.
  • We should be alert to Soviet attempts to drive wedges between ourselves and our allies.
  • We should avoid bluffs and idle threats in dealing with the Soviet Union.
  • We should avoid agreements, loosely worded and based on broad principles. All agreements should be specific, self-enforcing and adequately verifiable.
  • We should tone down our enthusiasm for summitry. A summit meeting must be carefully prepared and geared to a specific political objective.
  • We should avoid chumminess. Good faith and trust are ruled out by Soviet ideology and behavior.”
Rest in peace Ambassador Toon but thank you for your wise counsel. Your advice still resounds across the decades. Perhaps someone in Secretary Tillerson’s office would make this column available to him.  If that is, there’s anybody home.  He needs them.
For the record Malcolm Toon died in 2009 but The New York Times just published his obituary on May 2, 2017. Here it is.  Maybe the Times thinks this administration needs the counsel too. 

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