U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Sunday that Washington will respond by Sept. 1 to Russia's move to force a major reduction in American diplomatic staff, a move that echoed former President Barack Obama's action to kick out Russian diplomats for Moscow's meddling in the 2016 American election.
Russia said recently it was forcing the U.S. to cut its embassy and consulate staff in Russia by 755 people. But there's been confusion because the U.S. is believed to have far fewer than 755 American employees in Russia.
Tillerson spoke to reporters during a visit to the Philippines. He said he communicated U.S. plans to respond by that deadline to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov when they met Sunday in Manila. Tillerson said he told Lavrov that the U.S. still hasn't decided how it will respond. He added that he asked Lavrov "several clarifying questions" about the act of Russian retaliation.
Earlier this month, President Donald Trump grudgingly signed what he called a "seriously flawed" package of sanctions against Russia. The legislation is aimed at penalizing Moscow for interference in the election and for its military aggression in Ukraine and Syria, where the Kremlin has backed President Bashar Assad.
Lavrov told reporters that despite strained relations with Washington, his country was ready for more engagement with the United States on North Korea, Syria, Ukraine and other pressing matters. Lavrov said Russia and the U.S. had agreed to resume a suspended high-level diplomatic channel and Washington would send its Ukraine envoy to Moscow for negotiations.
Lavrov's upbeat assessment came amid what the U.S. has called a diplomatic low point unseen since the end of the Cold War.
"We felt that our American counterparts need to keep the dialogue open," Lavrov said. "There's no alternative to that."
Trump's administration has argued there's good reason for the U.S. to seek a more productive relationship. Tillerson has cited modest signs of progress in Syria, where the U.S. and Russia recently brokered a cease-fire in the war-torn country's southwest, as a sign there's fertile ground for cooperation.
The Syrian cease-fire reflected a return of U.S.-Russia cooperation to lower violence there. The U.S. had looked warily at a series of safe zones in Syria that Russia had negotiated along with Turkey and Iran — but not the U.S.
Lavrov cited upcoming talks involving Russia, Iran and Turkey about how to ensure the truce in the last safe zone to be established, around the north-western city of Idlib. He predicted "it will be difficult" to hammer out the details but that compromise can be reached if all parties — including the U.S. — use their influence in Syria to persuade armed groups there to comply.
Tillerson said Russian meddling in the election had "created serious mistrust between our two countries. A U.S. Justice Department investigation is moving ahead into Russia's election interference and potential Trump campaign collusion. Trump denies any collusion and has repeatedly questioned U.S. intelligence about Moscow's involvement.
"We simply have to find some way to deal with that," Tillerson said. "Now, having said that, we also have very important national security interests in the Middle East, in Syria, and we have important national security interests in Afghanistan and that region of the world, and we have serious needs to begin to address the situation in Ukraine. The Russians have indicated some willingness to begin to talk with us about the way forward on Ukraine."
Word that U.S. special representative Kurt Volker plans to visit the Russian capital was the latest sign that Washington is giving fresh attention to resolving the Ukraine conflict. The U.S. cut military ties to Russia over Moscow's annexation of Crimea and accuses the Kremlin of fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine by arming, supporting and even directing pro-Russian separatists there who are fighting the Kiev government.
In recent days, the Trump administration has been considering providing lethal weaponry to Ukraine to help defend itself against Russian aggression.
In their meeting, Lavrov said, Tillerson agreed to continue a dialogue between U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov. That channel was created to address what the U.S. calls "irritants" preventing the two countries from pursuing better ties. Russia had suspended the talks after the U.S. tightened existing sanctions on Russia related to its actions in Ukraine.
Lavrov and Tillerson met on the sidelines of an Asian regional gathering in the Philippines. It was their first face-to-face conversation since Congress passed new sanctions legislation in July that makes it harder for Trump to ever ease penalties on Russia. Trump signed the bill last week, but called it "seriously flawed."
The White House said Trump's opposition stemmed from the bill's failure to grant the president sufficient flexibility on when to lift sanctions. Trump's critics saw his objections as one more sign that he is too eager to pursue closer ties to Russia, or to protect the former Cold War foe from penalties designed to punish Moscow for its actions in Ukraine, election meddling and other troublesome behavior.