Rex Tillerson's first public meeting as Secretary of State with a foreign counterpart was with Russia's foreign minister. In the immediate aftermath of Michael Flynn's resignation for lying about talking sanctions with the Russian ambassador, the U.S. public deserves more information about our Russian foreign policy, not less.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Bonn, Germany, in advance of a meeting of the leaders of the Group of 20 and was silent on the issue of U.S. sanctions against Russia.
Coming on the heels of the resignation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn for his secret discussions with the Russian ambassador about the sanctions, and with more questions arising about the Trump administration's Russian ties, Tillerson's meeting happened at a time when the U.S. public deserves more information about our foreign policy vis a vis Russia, not less.
In addition, given Russia's provocative acts of of aggression against NATO and the United States since Trump took office, Tillerson's silence and refusal to state the sanctions will remain in place are noteworthy on their own. Trump himself has stated he is open to removing sanctions, and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway has previously confirmed lifting the sanctions is under consideration.
Tillerson's trip and the meeting were carried out under the radar and the usual accompaniment of U.S. journalists were not invited by the State Department. As the meeting began, the few journalists present, including the Russian outlets, were unexpectedly (and unusually) ushered out of the meeting room by Tillerson's aides.
After the meeting, Tillerson appeared only briefly before reporters, spoke a total of three brief sentences — one of which was "Thank you" — and took no questions.
TILLERSON: ...with the interests and values of America and her allies. As we search for common ground, we expect Russia to honor its commitment to the Minsk Agreements and work to de-escalate the violence in the Ukraine. Thank you very much.”
[Tillerson walks away from podium.]
REPORTER: “Sir, on the Minsk Agreement, President Trump has said that the sanctions could be lifted…”
[Tillerson ignores the question and leaves the room.]
Tillerson's silence on the subject is notable: As CEO for ExxonMobil, he arranged a deal with the Russian government-owned oil giant Rosneft to drill in the Arctic. As a result, he was awarded the Russian Order of Friendship by Russian President Putin in 2013.
In early 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine and "annexed" a large portion of its territory, the Crimean Peninsula. In the wake of Russia's aggression, then President Barack Obama issued significant sanctions against Russia, the terms of which prevented ExxonMobil from moving forward with the Rosneft drilling deal, leaving billions of dollars at risk if it is permanently unable to proceed.
Meanwhile, days in advance of the meeting, the Russian Embassy in the U.S. began developing the narrative that lifting the sanctions is not being discussed:
— Russia in USA ?? (@RusEmbUSA) February 13, 2017
The narrative that sanctions are not being discussed is now actively being disseminated by the two English language arms of the Russian government's propaganda machine, Russia Today:
— RT (@RT_com) February 16, 2017
It is important to note that Russia is infamous for its use of disinformation campaigns: Putting out false narratives to distract or deflect from its actual actions and goals.
The idea Tillerson, who formerly headed an oil company with billions of dollars on the line, and Lavrov, whose nation has even more billions of dollars of potential wealth on the line, would somehow not communicate about the economic sanctions put in place by the Obama administration beggars belief — particularly in light of the still-unfolding controversy surrounding Flynn's conduct regarding Russia.
Yet that appears to be the official line.