This is not how the Trump administration thought its first meeting with Vladimir Putin would go. To be fair, it’s not how anyone thought the Trump administration’s first meeting with Putin would go. Instead of meeting as chums—and possible allies in the war against ISIS—Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Putin on Wednesday amidst heightened tensions, after the United States bombed Russia’s ally Syria in response to Bashar al-Assad’s sarin gas attack. The bombing, moreover, came less than a week after Tillerson signaled to Assad and Putin that the United States was effectively ceding Syria to Russia’s sphere of influence. The already incomprehensibly complex situation in Syria is now more incomprehensibly complex than ever.
Some wondered if the long-planned meeting between Tillerson and Putin would be canceled. But that was not the case—Tillerson met with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for nearly four hours before heading to the Kremlin to meet with the man himself. Sure, Putin on Wednesday essentially dared the United States to strike Syria again, but these meetings suggest that relations with Russia have not deteriorated to the extent that some people have claimed. Whether that’s a result of the overtures that Trump made during the campaign is anyone’s guess. After all, the last three U.S. presidents have pledged better relations with Russia and all three have been disappointed.