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Tillerson, Lavrov Discuss Next Steps In First Post-Sanctions Meeting

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held their first meeting since Donald Trump signed into law new sanctions against Moscow which Russia said amounted to a full-scale trade war and ended hopes for better ties, sending relations between the two nations back to their frosty level observed during the Obama administration.

According to Reuters, Lavrov, who met Tillerson on the sidelines of an international meeting in Manila, said the first thing that Tillerson asked about was Russia's retaliation to new U.S. sanctions against Moscow. "He was primarily interested ... in details of those decisions that we grudgingly made in response to the law on anti-Russian sanctions," Lavrov told reporters after the metting. "We provided an explanation," Lavrov added laconically, referring to Russia's decision to take over a summer-house compound in Moscow leased by the U.S. embassy and an order to slash U.S. diplomatic presence in Russia.

Lavrov also said that he believed his U.S. colleagues were ready to continue dialogue with Moscow on complex issues despite bilateral tensions, and said that Moscow is ready for normalized relations if the US “pulls back from confrontation.

“Lavrov pointed out that the US law on sanctions against Russia has become another link in the chain of steps unfriendly and dangerous for international stability, striking a powerful blow to the prospects for bilateral cooperation,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, published on its website on Sunday. "Naturally, such actions, including the illegal retention of our diplomatic property since December of last year, could not remain unanswered, and won’t be in the future. At the same time, we are ready to normalize our dialogue if Washington pulls back from confrontation."

Lavrov described his talks with Tillerson as lengthy and said they covered a wide range of topics, from the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula to coordination plans between Russia and the United States to withstand attacks.

"We felt the readiness of our U.S. colleagues to continue dialogue. I think there's no alternative to that," Lavrov said. The two sides agreed that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and Under Secretary Thomas A. Shannon would continue discussing complex issues on the bilateral agenda.

The Russian foreign minister cited Vladimir Putin who, in an interview to Russian TV last week, explained Moscow's need to retaliate to the U.S. sanctions over its role in the Ukrainian crisis and recently expanded to punish Russia for meddling in the U.S. presidential election. “He said it all there, explaining the reasons behind the decisions we made after long expectations that the US would not follow the path of confrontation,” Lavrov said cited by Interfax. “But, unfortunately, the Russophobic attitude of the members of the Congress prevented this from happening."

Earlier in the week, when speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Tillerson held out hope for better ties. "There's been no belligerence," he said of his dealings with Lavrov. "I think he is as committed as I am to trying to find ways that can bring this relationship back."

However, analysts were skeptical that much progress is likely any time soon on areas such as reducing the violence in Syria's civil war or calming the conflict in eastern Ukraine, let alone reversing Russia's annexation of Crimea. "The backdrop for that is obviously horrible given the Russian anger over the sanctions bill and the continued day-to-day revelations in the Russia probe," said Carnegie Endowment analyst Andrew Weiss, referring to investigations into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

A second former senior U.S. official said he thought the best the two might achieve would be to prevent further deterioration. "Do no harm is the other side of the coin," said the former official who spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he would expect the two men to review those areas such as the arctic, space and arms control where U.S.-Russian cooperation continues.

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In what may be a sign that relations between the two nations have not been irrevocably broken, speaking on Rossiya24 state TV, Lavrov said that Tillerson told him the United States' special representative on Ukraine, Kurt Volker, a former U.S. envoy to NATO, would meet a senior aide to Putin, Vladimir Surkov, "in the nearest future".

"We would be interested to see what impression the U.S. special envoy has on the current state of affairs," Lavrov explained, quoted by Reuters.

Washington sent Volker to Ukraine last month to assess the situation in the ex-Soviet republic, where a 2015 ceasefire between Kiev's forces and Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country is regularly violated. Washington cites the conflict as a key obstacle to improved relations between Russia and the United States.