“We have to figure out what this country’s strategy is,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on a political talk show on TVRain, an independent Russian channel, just hours after Tillerson touched down in Moscow, and hours before meetings were set to begin. “No one understands it right now. If you do, share your appraisal with us,” she said, flustered, to us journalists interviewing her. “We don’t understand what they’re going to do in Syria, and not only there. No one understands what they’re going to do in the Middle East, which is a very complicated region. … No one understands what they’re going to do with Iran, no one understands what they’re going to do with Afghanistan. Excuse me, and I still haven’t said anything about Iraq.”
Moreover, she complained, who were the Russians supposed to talk to to find out? “Just look, the team … is not fully formed,” Zakharova said. “Even if the key people, the heads of the agencies have been named … there’s no layer between them and the work horses. It’s just not there.” Her boss, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, pointedly told the National Interest two weeks ago that close cooperation with Tillerson “could only be done when the team in the State Department is complete.”
As for Tillerson’s sudden transformation from a friend of Russia, decorated by Putin with an Order of Friendship, to someone who publicly chastises its leadership for being “complicit or simply incompetent” in its guarantee of helping Assad dispose of his chemical weapons, Russians are trying to be understanding. “We’re surprised by the change of rhetoric and policy of Trump,” said Igor Korotchenko, the editor of National Defense Magazine, who has close connections to the Russian defense ministry. “Tillerson is just the executor of his boss’s policy. And that’s what really does surprise us. We understand that things in America change quickly, but this is … he’s jumping from one extreme to the other. We’re ready for dialogue. We just have to understand what they want.”
“Tillerson has to explain what Trump’s foreign policy is. What is Trump’s foreign policy?” said political scientist Andranik Migranyan, an old classmate of Lavrov’s who ran a Russian think tank in New York that worked on defending Moscow’s position. Lavrov’s thinking on confronting this new twist, Migranyan told me, is “‘You explain to us what it is you want, and then we can talk.’ The whole world is waiting for them to figure this out and stop messing with us.”
But there is no end to that in sight. So while Trump gradually discovers the world’s complexities, in the process flipping the script on his own dogmas, Moscow has apparently decided to take the position of the forbearing parent who is waiting out the tumultuous teenage years.
Sitting next to a stern, terse Tillerson, who looked straight ahead and never at his Russian counterpart, Lavrov was all suave patience. “As far as I’m concerned, I’d just like to say that we do not consider that we are miles apart on many questions on the agenda,” he said. He insisted on underlining the issues on which there is agreement—terrorism must be fought together, for instance. When it came to the areas where there was disagreement, he blamed another, unnamed party.