Tillerson makes tricky trip to Moscow as Trump's hopes of new deal with Putin in shreds
Rex Tillerson visits Moscow for his first meetings as US secretary of state with Russian President Vladimir Putin tomorrow and Wednesday.
The spike in Washington-Moscow tensions over Syria will dominate discussion, and both sides are looking for ways to try to de-escalate a situation which Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said last week had put them "one step away from war" and had "totally ruined" relations.
Signs of rising tensions include Moscow's suspension of an agreement with Washington to share communications about US and Russian aircraft conducting missions over Syria. Moreover, the Admiral Grigorovich frigate warship has been dispatched from Crimea to the Syrian port of Tartus.
The ratcheting up of tensions between Moscow and Washington, following US President Donald Trump's first major foray into a foreign conflict, has widened differences between him and Mr Putin over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after they had seemed to be getting closer to an agreement to potentially bring an end to Syria's six-year civil war that has left half a million people dead and triggered floods of refugees. Mr Trump last week called for the Syrian president to be ousted.
Part of the reason why last week's events were unexpected was Mr Trump's previous "America First" rhetoric, which indicated he would not seek to deepen US involvement in Syria. Yet, US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Friday that the Trump administration was ready to take further military steps in the country if needed.
There has been significant support for Washington's stance from the international community, with the exception of not just Russia, but other Mr Assad allies, such as Iran. For instance, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has cancelled a trip to Moscow in response to last week's poison gas atrocity, and has pledged to try to build with Mr Tillerson co-ordinated international support for a ceasefire on the ground in Syria and an intensified political process to find a solution to the civil war and defeating Isil.
While last week's missile strikes have also received relatively broad bipartisan support in Washington, Democrats have pointed to the inconsistency between the previous rhetoric of Mr Trump compared with now, and also called for a more joined-up strategy on Syria.
Former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has asked Mr Trump to reverse course on his proposed ban on refugees coming to the US from Syria, asserting "we cannot speak in one breath of protecting Syrian babies [from chemical attacks] and in the next close American doors to them".
Outside of the immediate Syrian context, the bigger strategic question for Mr Trump and Mr Putin (right) is where this leaves prospects for a warming of relations based, in part, upon what had appeared to be mutual self-regard. Mr Trump had given multiple indications he believed Russia was not a serious threat to the US, hinting in January he could drop economic sanctions if the country was "helpful".
He appeared to believe there were common interests over issues such as preventing Iran from securing nuclear weapons, combating terrorism, and potentially even helping contain China.
This repositioning of relations with Russia now looks to have been put on ice, if not shattered. It is not only the fact that relations have become frostier over Syria, but also that the Trump team is under pressure over investigations from Congress and the FBI over its ties with Moscow before assuming power.
Should Mr Trump reverse course on Russia, it would bring him closer into line with US Defence Secretary James Mattis and Mr Tillerson, who have been forceful in criticism of Moscow. Mr Tillerson - who, from his time as CEO of ExxonMobil, knows Mr Putin - said "either Russia has been complicit or simply incompetent" in Syria, referring to Moscow's apparent inability to prevent the Assad regime from using chemical weapons, despite a 2013 agreement to remove stockpiles from the country.
Already, uncertainty over Mr Trump's Nato policy is spurring Europeans to seek to reverse a decade of defence spending cuts.
Moreover, a new European Defence Action Plan was discussed at December's EU summit that, subject to final agreement, will see greater continental military co-operation, too.
Escalation of tensions in Syria is a blow to Mr Trump's stated desire to seek Russian rapprochement. Indeed, it could yet derail the initiative even before he and Mr Putin have had their first official face-to-face meeting.
Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics, and an adviser to ReputationInc