U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met Thursday for the first time in the highest-level face-to-face contact between the two countries since President Donald Trump took office.
Lavrov was asked if Russia is concerned about turmoil in the Trump administration. He repeated Moscow's standard line that Russia "does not interfere in the domestic matters of other countries."
Tillerson did not speak at the meeting on the sidelines of a conference of foreign ministers of Group of 20 major powers in Bonn, Germany.
Tillerson arrived in Germany late Wednesday. He will be playing defense amid the chaos and turmoil caused by the firing of national security adviser Michael Flynn for misleading officials about his contacts with Russia.
Trump chose Tillerson for the job in part because of his business experience and relationship with Russia while he was CEO of oil giant Exxon Mobil. His meeting with Lavrov was the first test of whether that business acumen — which led to great profits for Exxon and Russian President Vladimir Putin bestowing a friendship award upon him — can translate into success in a high-stakes diplomatic arena.
Tillerson has taken a low-key and reserved approach in his first two weeks on the job and declined the opportunity to speak with reporters traveling with him. As America's top diplomat, he has yet to comment publicly on developments with Russia, its alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election or its actions in Syria and Ukraine.
At his confirmation hearing last month, he voiced conventional concerns about Russia's behavior and said they should be addressed by projecting a forceful and united front. Like others in the administration, he hasn't been specific about how to repair damaged ties or whether doing so might involve lifting U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia after its 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.
U.S. officials accompanying Tillerson said they didn't expect him to stray from well-honed U.S. demands for Russia to abide by commitments it has made, along with appeals for cooperation in areas in which the two nations have common interests. These include the fight against the Islamic State group.
Nonetheless, the eyes of many will be focused on Tillerson's meeting with Lavrov for clues as to how the Trump administration intends to deal with Russia, particularly given the revelations about Flynn and the various U.S. investigations into Russian activity before the presidential election.
In Bonn, Tillerson will also meet privately and in small groups with the top diplomats of Britain, Turkey, Italy, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Japan, Argentina and Brazil. One meeting focuses on the worsening situation in Yemen, where a U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition is battling Shiite rebels believed to be supported by Iran. Another concerns Syria's violence.
Tillerson will be hoping to reassure his European colleagues of the Trump administration's commitment to trans-Atlantic institutions like NATO and the European Union. It's a similar mission to that of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who is in Brussels and will attend a security conference in Munich this weekend. There, Mattis will be joined by Vice President Mike Pence.