Diplomats from the United States and Russian are preparing for US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s planned visit to Moscow next month (April 2017). Tillerson will be talking with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and possibly meeting President Vladimir Putin. Traditionally, US Secretaries of State have an audience with Putin while in Moscow: Putin, not Lavrov, is Russia’s true foreign policy decision-maker. As CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson signed multi-billion-dollar oil deals with Rosneft’s Igor Sechin, a close Putin confidante. In 2013, Putin decorated Tillerson with the Order of Friendship—the top Russian decoration that may be given to a foreigner—in appreciation of his joint work with Sechin and Rosneft. In 2014, after the annexation of Crimea and fighting in eastern Ukraine, Western sanctions were imposed and ExxonMobil was forced to put on hold its joint projects with Rosneft, reportedly losing some $1 billion. As ExxonMobil CEO, Tillerson had called for dropping the sanctions to allow business to resume (Aif.ru, March 23).
The first official visit to Moscow by an old-and-trusted-Kremlin-friend-turned-US-Secretary-of-State could have been anticipated as a possible major step forward in US-Russian relations—of returning to business as usual. But alleged Russian interference in the US elections and suspicions about possible collusion between Donald Trump associates and Russian government agents continue to rock Washington. The Moscow press concludes that Tillerson’s hands will be tied during his Moscow visit. Any friendly moves by Tillerson or his Russian hosts could be interpreted as signs of undue collusion. Putin may be forced to snub Tillerson by not granting him an audience and, by so doing, miss an important opportunity to begin to build the outline of a major possible deal with the Trump administration. If Tillerson and Putin do meet next month in Moscow, their talks will be overshadowed by ongoing investigations of alleged Russian involvement in the US elections and contacts with the Trump campaign. These investigations may last for years in Washington, effectively preventing any possible Putin-Trump détente (Kommersant, March 21).
Foreign Minister Lavrov, speaking on March 23 to a gathering of top military officials at Russia’s most prestigious military school—the Academy of the General Staff—defended both Trump and extreme-right-wing French nationalist politician Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Fount party and one of the main contenders in the French presidential elections next month. According to Lavrov, Trump and Le Pen are “realists and anti-globalists,” who are defending the true interests of their respective countries, while being viciously attacked by the neoliberal and globalist anti-Russian establishment. Still, according to Lavrov, US-Russian relations after Trump’s inauguration are effectively on hold. Moscow is ready for dialogue, the foreign minister continued, but is not prepared to discuss any further bilateral nuclear disarmament with Washington—such talks would only be possible if they include mandatory cuts by other nuclear powers and take into account different conventional capabilities as well. US-Russian nuclear arms control—which, since 1972, was the basis of global strategic stability and eventually led to massive bilateral nuclear disarmament and the end of the Cold War—today seems dead, as seen from Moscow (Mid.ru, March 23).
According to Russia’s state propaganda mouthpiece, radio Sputnik, the relentless Washington infighting between supporters and opponents of the Trump presidency has “collapsed the US political system” (Sputnik, March 23). A dysfunctional US may embolden Moscow to act unilaterally instead of waiting for a possible deal with Trump that may never materialize. The Moscow press predicts an impending total collapse of governance in Ukraine. Russia must facilitate Ukrainian self-destruction and then move to pick up the pieces, politically and geographically, fully “reformatting” what is today’s Ukraine (Nvo.ng.ru, March 17). According to Lavrov, “the internally weak Ukrainian state is in deep crisis, and there seems to be no prospect of a solution by implementing the Minsk agreements.” Lavrov accused Kyiv of intransience, of being a pawn of “outside sponsors” and of neglecting the core interests “of Eastern Slavs—Ukrainians and Russians” (Mid.ru, March 23).
Meanwhile, on the same day as Lavrov’s speech, two major calamities hit Ukraine. A fire, followed by a series of massive explosions, engulfed a major munitions dump in eastern Ukraine. The arms depot, located in Balakleia, south of Kharkiv, some 90 kilometers from the Russian border and about 100 kilometers from the front line in Donbas, reportedly housed over 100,000 tons of old artillery shells and rockets. According to unconfirmed reports, this calamity could have been the result of a hostile drone attack. As a result of the explosive flames, Soviet-made anti-aircraft SA-6 Gainful missiles from the base have been inadvertently firing off and flying in different directions. Some 20,000 local inhabitants were evacuated; the fires and explosions could continue for many days before servicemen can begin to move in to assess the damage and collect unexploded munitions. Ukrainian officials hope newer, usable munitions survived in Balakleia, in underground concrete bunkers (Gordonua.com, March 23).
Additionally on March 23, in Kyiv, former Russian Duma Communist party deputy, Denis Voronenkov, was gunned down in the city center. Voronenkov, a former military lawyer, an anti-narcotics agency official and a dubious businessman, defected to Ukraine last fall. There, he claimed and received Ukrainian citizenship, publicly denounced Russian policies in Crimea and Donbas (which he previously supported as a Duma deputy), and has provided evidence against former president Viktor Yanukovych (in exile in Russia), who is accused in Ukraine of treason and of scheming to invite Russian occupying troops. Voronenkov was denounced in Moscow as a traitor, and the Ukrainian authorities had provided him with an armed bodyguard. In the subsequent shootout with the armed assailant, Voronenkov was killed on the spot. His alleged killer was also hit and later died in the hospital from a head wound. The former Russian lawmaker’s bodyguard is in a critical condition with a serious stomach wound (Liga.net, March 23).
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko accused Russia of being behind the Voronenkov killing, of “state terrorism” and of “the diversion in Balakleia” deliberately happening the same day. Russian officials and politicians rejected any responsibility, in turn accusing Ukrainian special services and authorities of organizing the Voronenkov killing to later accuse Russia (Interfax, March 23). The investigations of the Voronenkov murder and the Balakleia fire will continue, but the opposing positions in the escalating Russo-Ukrainian confrontation seem to be firmly set.