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U.S. Strike Against Syria Overshadows Rex Tillerson's Visit To Russia


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is on his first official diplomatic visit to Moscow. It comes at a critical time. Both Russia and the White House are talking tough after the U.S. attack on an airbase in Syria last week.


Russia has been helping the Syrian regime, and in a news conference this morning, Russian President Vladimir Putin compared the air strike to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Tillerson, for his part, has said Russia was either complicit in Assad's access to chemical weapons or simply incompetent in ensuring they were removed.

SHAPIRO: Kimberly Marten is a Russia expert at Barnard College and Columbia University. I asked her to explain each side's objectives headed into these talks, beginning with the U.S.

KIMBERLY MARTEN: Well, you know, that airstrike demonstrated U.S. strength and in particular the strength of President Trump as an individual. And Putin is someone who respects strength. So it's an indication that there's not friendship between the two sides, but I'm not sure it's necessarily a bad thing for the future of the relationship.

And I think Rex Tillerson has made it very clear that trying to get Russia on board for a different way of approaching the Syria conflict might be the highest priority of the American side. Although North Korea is also going to be an important issue, and that's sort of been pushed off the pages of the press in the last couple of days. But there's a real crisis brewing there.

SHAPIRO: I do want to talk about North Korea in a moment, but that's an interesting dichotomy that you draw between the U.S. expressing strength, something that Putin appreciates, and opposing Russia, which is something he must not appreciate very much.

MARTEN: Well, if we look in detail at what happened in Syria, it had to have embarrassed President Putin that Assad decided to use chemical weapons because Putin had sort of staked his reputation on the successful 2013 chemical weapons accord. And so Assad, by using chemical weapons, was demonstrating disrespect for Putin, trying to act on his own.

And so I'm not sure that it was necessarily against real Russian interests to have the U.S. airstrike in response to that. It may actually be an opening for more U.S.-Russian cooperation, and it may be sort of an opening to allow Putin to say that maybe it's time for Assad to be eased out of office.

SHAPIRO: Interesting and complicated chess game there.


SHAPIRO: So if the U.S. strategy is to get Russia on board with a new approach to Syria, what do you think the Russian objective is in this meeting?

MARTEN: I think the Russian objective - the primary one is just to try to figure out what direction the Trump administration is going. It must have been very confusing for the Russians over the last couple of months to try to figure out what was happening in U.S. politics and what all of the investigations of the Trump campaign would mean for the future of Russia's relationship with the U.S.

But I think that, you know, Russia also has an incentive to try to find some cooperation so that Putin can come out of this with a win for his domestic population and demonstrate that he is an important and equal player with the United States and that the United States is taking him seriously by making this visit.

SHAPIRO: Now, you mentioned the importance of North Korea to this visit. This morning, President Trump tweeted that North Korea was looking for trouble and warned that if China doesn't take care of the problem, the U.S. will. What role does Russia play in this?

MARTEN: The experience that we've had in the last more-than-a-decade is that the most significant action that takes place against North Korea has to have U.N. Security Council support. And Russia of course has a veto in the U.N. Security Council, and Russia has a strong interest - it always has - in not allowing nuclear proliferation by states that don't already have nuclear weapons. And Russia is a border state with North Korea, so it has a very strong interest in having some sort of a stable end to the confrontation that's happening rather than having instability resolved.

SHAPIRO: Kimberly Marten is a professor at Barnard College and director of Columbia University's program on U.S.-Russia relations. Thanks for speaking with us.

MARTEN: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.