For US, Russia, challenge of deep chill is to keep cool and take small steps

President Trump came into office hoping to launch a warming in US-Russia relations. Instead, over the last six months, things have gone from cool to icy cold.

If in January Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that the United States and Russia “are not likely ever to be friends,” Congress this month approved veto-proof sanctions legislation that baldly labels Russia America’s “adversary.”

Relations, Mr. Trump says, have deteriorated to where they are now “dangerous.”

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It’s at this rock-bottom point in relations that Mr. Tillerson will meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Manila this weekend to gauge the prospects of maintaining some level of cooperation in areas of mutual interest. They include Syria, counterterrorism, avoiding a military confrontation in the Baltic Sea, and space.

But even though the two chief diplomats will meet in tropical Manila, heavy coats may be in order to ward off the chill of the deep freeze relations are in – and likely to stay in indefinitely, analysts of US-Russia relations say.

“We are looking at a serious rift in US-Russia relations [where] we have gone back to a tit-for-tat mode of bilateral interaction where each side feels compelled to retaliate for perceived or actual attacks from the other,” says Matthew Rojansky, director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute for US-Russia studies in Washington.

Nevertheless, there is precedent for fruitful engagement between Washington and Moscow on bilateral and multilateral matters even in times of such stress, say some analysts, pointing to the cold war era that at times in recent months has seemed not so distant.

Late last month Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a steep reduction in US Embassy staff in Moscow and the seizure of two small US diplomatic properties diplomatic properties shortly after Congress approved the new US economic sanctions bill. The measures, which Trump reluctantly signed into law Wednesday, aim to punish Russia for its belligerent actions against US allies and partners in Central and Eastern Europe, and for what US intelligence agencies assert was Russian interference in last year’s presidential election.

“It’s a mess,” Mr. Rojansky adds, “and the president is right to say that it is dangerous – the risk of further escalation, even direct military confrontation, is more acute than it has been in a long time.”

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