By Nick Wadhams
The top diplomats from Russia and the U.S. are spending their Thursday evening at a five-story Sheraton Hotel in Ethiopia’s capital. But with the two countries’ relationship at a post-Cold War low, the envoys can’t even agree on whether they want to meet.
The latest dispute began a few weeks ago when reporters realized that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would be in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, at the same time. Tillerson is at the start of a five-nation tour expected to focus on security and counterterror issues. Lavrov is further along on his own trip to the continent, although Ethiopia is the only destination on both diplomats’ schedules.
If they did want to parley, the Sheraton’s Sunset Bar advertises a “wide of variety of exclusive whiskeys, Cognacs and a range of international beverages,” which could facilitate a diplomatic detente. Plus it’s open until 4 a.m., so talks could drag on without fear of last call.
Despite the coincidence of high-profile envoys staying in the same hotel on separate African tours on the same night, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said March 6 that Russia hadn’t asked for a meeting between the two. That prompted an angry response from Lavrov, who insisted during a stop in Zimbabwe that Moscow did in fact want to meet.
“I want to say that this is untrue,” Lavrov said.
The discord spread to Facebook, where Russia’s embassy in Washington wrote, “This would be a great opportunity to discuss a range of accumulated issues on regional and global agenda not through the press, but directly.”
‘That’s Just Silly’
There is much to discuss. Moscow and Washington are locked in a prolonged diplomatic freeze over Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign. They are also butting heads in Syria, where Russia backs President Bashar Al-Assad and has blocked U.S. resolutions over Syria’s use of chemical weapons. And there’s the continuing conflict in Ukraine, the dispute over North Korea’s nuclear program and a host of other issues.
Asked Thursday about the meeting that wasn’t happening, Tillerson said the notion that the U.S. had rejected diplomatic engagement “is really silly — that’s just silly.” He said he learned of Lavrov’s desire to meet only as he was flying to Africa on Tuesday night.
Repeating that “we never received a formal invitation” from Lavrov, Nauert told reporters in Washington on Thursday, “Just because because the two of them happen to be in the same country at the same time doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to carve out time.”
But she also ratcheted up her criticism of Russia, saying, “Let’s remember the horrors taking place” in Syria and asking, “Do they seem willing to listen to the world?”
Tillerson wouldn’t rule out the possibility that he and Lavrov might meet before he heads to Djibouti early Friday. But he made clear he wasn’t worried about a missed opportunity either.
“If it doesn’t work out here, he and I see each other often around the world, and we have each other’s telephone numbers and we do use them,” he said.