US-Russia relations 'under stress' - Tillerson

Relations between the US and Russia are “under considerable stress” but Washington and Moscow are trying to work together to fight ISIS and create conditions for peace in Syria, said US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

“After last week, the question is if they are getting worse,” Tillerson said, alluding to Moscow’s decision to retaliate for US measures from December 2016 by locking down two properties and cutting US diplomatic mission by 755 members.

“I think the American people want the two most powerful nuclear powers in the world to have a better relationship,” Tillerson said, answering questions from reporters at the State Deparment on Tuesday.

He noted that Moscow reserved the right to react when the Obama administration expelled 35 Russian diplomats and seized two Russian properties in the US, and that President Vladimir Putin made the call to retaliate after the US Congress overwhelmingly voted to impose more sanctions on Russia, overriding the White House.

“Does it make our life more difficult? Of course it makes our life more difficult,” Tillerson said.  “Neither the president nor I are very happy” about how Congress went about the sanctions bill, he added, but “we can’t let it take us off-track in trying to restore the relationship.”

Tillerson said he will be meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of the upcoming ASEAN forum in Manila.

“Our conversation following the actions has been professional, there’s been no belligerence. Foreign Minister Lavrov and I understand our roles,” Tillerson said.

Tillerson singled out Syria as a testbed where the US and Russia can work together on areas of mutual interest, such as combating “radical Islamist terrorism” such as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL).

The US continues to insist, however, that the government of President Bashar Assad “has no role in future governing of Syria” and that Iranian troops and militias backed by Tehran currently in Syria “must go home,” Tillerson said.

President Donald Trump’s top diplomat praised the newly appointed US envoy for the crisis in Ukraine, Kurt Volker, whom he called “very clear-eyed about his mission.”

The US position is that the Minsk accords must be implemented before anything can be done about Ukraine-related sanctions, Tillerson said, adding that the peace process in Ukraine “has been stalled for quite some time” and that there is a need for a new ceasefire.