DAVID GREENE, HOST:
So if you listened to some of the public statements, you would think this meeting in Moscow today would be pretty uncomfortable. You might also think the relationship between Russia and the United States was at a frightening new low. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is meeting this morning in Moscow with Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. And the backdrop for all of this is that chemical attack in Syria last week. The White House has blamed Syria's government and suggested that Russia engaged in a cover-up to help its ally.
And there's also been tough talk from Russia. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said the United States and Russia could be on the brink of combat. And this morning, Foreign Minister Lavrov, ready to meet with Tillerson, said he doesn't want to see the U.S. attack Syria again. Jon Finer was chief of staff to the last secretary of state, John Kerry. He has been in many meetings like the ones happening in Moscow today. And he joins us on the line. Mr. Finer, good morning.
JONATHAN FINER: Good morning. Thanks for having me.
GREENE: Well, thanks for coming on. So does all of this tough talk mean this relationship is totally falling apart?
FINER: The talk alone doesn't necessarily mean that. I think you are dealing and witnessing two administrations, one on the U.S. side, one on the Russian side, that like to try to kind of set a tone before going into these big diplomatic meetings - and a tough tone. You've seen the Trump administration do this in other contexts, with the Chinese coming to town and with other big diplomatic engagements. This is also a classic feature of the Russian playbook, sort of seeding their state-run media with strong statements to try to put the visiting delegation on the defensive by the time they arrive.
GREENE: Well, pretty strong statements from the Trump administration and the president himself. There was an interview broadcast on Fox Business Network. And Donald Trump's basically saying that Vladimir Putin should not be backing Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad. Let's listen here.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Putin is backing a person that's truly an evil person. And I think it's very bad for Russia. I think it's very bad for mankind. It's very bad for this world.
GREENE: Jon Finer, I mean, you said words alone. So, I mean, take me inside these meetings, if you can. Is this a case where both sides sort of understand that they need to set things up with all these harsh statements, but once you get in the room, you actually, you know, have some tea and start talking things out? Or are there real tensions there?
FINER: No, it can be actually quite tense inside the meetings as well, especially at a time like this, when there are real substantive differences. The attack that took place in Syria was unconscionable. The Trump administration rightly not only called out what the Assad regime had done but also pointed to their direct supporters and backers, the Russian government and particularly President Putin. So this will be the subject, I think, of some tension during the course of the meeting.
And the challenge with these conversations is always how much time you will spend on your own agenda, on the ideas and plans that you come in to the meeting with to try to get the Russians to buy into, versus how much time you will spend more on your back foot, responding to Russian classical counter-accusations. They have a way of trying to start these meetings with a long litany of grievances, going back sometimes decades in their view of kind of American transgressions in foreign policy, and...
GREENE: Bringing up, like, the Cold War, when the U.S. wants to be talking about Syria at this moment.
FINER: Oh, there's a greatest hits tape that they can run just from memory that includes the Iraq War, the Libya intervention, you know, episodes from the Cold War and many others. Ukraine is another classic feature. And the key really, I think, and the advice that we tended to give to Secretary Kerry, was to not take the bait and rebut every single one of these charges because they often are all rebuttable. But to try to focus...
GREENE: Just let them talk. Like, let them - let them go through the list.
FINER: Absorb and then try to pivot and focus on your own agenda so you can actually try to get something out of these meetings.
GREENE: I mean, we should say that - I mean, the Russians believe that some of their grievances are legitimate. I mean, they do go back to Libya. They feel like the United States and NATO toppled Moammar Gadhafi over Russian objections, went in far too quickly. And their argument would be that the United States has left the place a mess. So, I mean, I would imagine American officials have to take some things seriously in those meetings.
FINER: The Russians have a coherent worldview, even if it's not one that we share, even if we differ on many of the facts. And so to go in thinking that they are irrational in these views I think is not a constructive way forward. That said, again, I think really the key is not to spend time dwelling on things that happened two, three, four, 10, 15, 20 years ago and to try to figure out what these two countries, who are so intimately and critically involved in the Syria conflict, which is going to be the focus of these conversations, can do to try to resolve it. If we spend time on the past, this will not be a good use of what is a fortuitously timed meeting to Moscow. If you spend time on the future, there is a chance of trying to make things move forward.
GREENE: Well, one of the big, big things looming over this meeting is whether the Russian government knew that Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons, if that indeed happened. I mean, you've been in sensitive meetings like this. If Russian officials deny that, if they say that didn't happen, it wasn't the Assad government, I mean, would - in a moment like that, would you take them for their word? Do they believe that? Or is something else going on?
FINER: Well, first of all, there's no taking Russian officials for their word on any of this. That's not something that an American diplomat would ever do. And, you know, they will deny this. There's no doubt. I mean, what they say in public about American disinformation will almost certainly be what they say in private if Secretary Tillerson raises the notion that Russians were either involved in or at least knew about this chemical attack before it took place.
So one open question is, how much is Secretary Tillerson going to push that point, going to push the notion of Russian complicity? And if he does, he will really need to bring some evidence to bear that he can present because the classic Russian response to that sort of accusation is, oh, well, if that is what you believe, show me the proof. Show me the evidence. And this can be another rabbit hole that you can be stuck in going back and forth for quite a long time. He has - Secretary Tillerson has to make the point. The question is how long to dwell on it.
GREENE: Do you see a way forward for these two countries? Can they agree on some kind of future for Syria or at least come close to some agreement?
FINER: Well, I think that is the biggest question that I think a lot of us have going into and coming out of these meetings in Moscow today. And I think the only real answer is that they have to. There is no solution to the conflict in Syria that doesn't involve the United States and Russia coming to some sort of understanding. And if the Trump administration is as offended by and horrified by - as they rightly should be - the images that they saw coming out of that attack over the past week, the best way to try to make sure that those images are never seen again and, more importantly, those instances never occur again, is to try to figure out a way diplomatically to address the underlying conflict. They have not, frankly, shown a lot of interest in or appetite for that challenge so far. And I think, hopefully, the chemical attack and their response to it will reinvigorate some of the diplomacy on Syria.
GREENE: Again, Rex Tillerson, U.S. secretary of state, already at those meetings underway with Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia. Jon Finer was in a lot of meetings just like that. He was former Secretary of State John Kerry's chief of staff, also the State Department's director of policy planning. He's now at Harvard's Institute of Politics. Jon Finer, thanks a lot.
FINER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.