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Syria only the top of Tillerson’s complex agenda in Russia

WASHINGTON (AP) — While Syria’s conflict may be the most immediate and visible crisis for the United States and Russia, it is only one item on the complex and interwoven agenda for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s talks in Moscow.

President Donald Trump’s missile strikes on a Syrian air base last week, launched in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack, have given fresh urgency to Tillerson’s trip.

But the disputes separating the countries have ramifications from Middle East to Asia and Europe.

Here are the main issues confronting the former Cold War foes:


Both sides are angry. The U.S. blames Russia for its military support of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and its failure to deliver on a 2013 agreement to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. U.S. officials have even suggested Russian complicity for last week’s deadly chemical weapons attack. And they say Russia faces a choice: Align with the U.S. and its coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Syria, or stick with Assad and his other ally, Iran. Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s main patron, is lashing out at the U.S. for its retaliatory strikes. He is accusing Syrian rebels of staging the chemical weapons attack. The consequences of any further U.S. action in Syria can be destabilizing. Turkey, a NATO ally, borders northern Syria.


Putin and his government want to soothe tensions over Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and perhaps ease U.S. and European sanctions slapped on in response. But Tillerson and other top Trump administration officials say sanctions will remain until Russia leaves Crimea and ends support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine, a NATO aspirant, has been a festering issue between Moscow, Washington and European capitals for the past three years and retains the potential to ignite a more serious East-West crisis.


Russia stands accused of meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. As Congress looks at the extent of the interference, the FBI is investigating possible collusion between Moscow and Trump campaign associates. In addition, European intelligence services accuse Russia of seeking to influence upcoming elections in France and Germany to sow discord within two key European Union and NATO members. Russia has denied any interference but has made no secret of its desire to erode Western unity. In Moscow, the meddling may be a difficult issue for Tillerson because U.S. intelligence agencies say Russia was acting to help Trump win the election.


Despite Syria’s urgency, the Trump administration sees North Korea as the greatest potential threat to the United States. Pyongyang’s ballistic missile tests and nuclear advances mean it could directly threaten U.S. territory within the next few years. Trump has deployed a missile defense system to South Korea and dispatched a naval carrier group to the region to warn North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Although China holds most leverage over North Korea, Russia, as a former North Korean ally, has been a key player in now-stalled six-nation denuclearization talks with Pyongyang. The U.S. will likely need both Chinese and Russian support to persuade the North to return to the table, no matter how seriously Kim takes Trump’s warnings.

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