MOSCOW — In recent weeks, ever since the US House of Representatives first passed new sanctions on Russia — which were later passed by the Senate and ultimately signed by President Donald Trump (though seemingly reluctantly) — Moscow has been agitated. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his US counterpart Rex Tillerson had two phone conversations over seven days — one following Russia’s decision to expel American diplomats and suspend the use of two US Embassy properties in Moscow, the other two days before the pair met face to face on the sidelines of the ASEAN ministerial meeting in Manila, Philippines. In the latter, the North Korea issue dominated the conversation as the two parties shifted focus from bilateral problems to burning international challenges.
Lavrov and Tillerson’s Aug. 6 meeting in Manila, which lasted about an hour, kicked off, according to Lavrov, with Tillerson's “being interested in details of the decision [on the expulsion of American diplomats] that we took in retaliation to the anti-Russian sanctions law. … We waited for a long time, expecting that the US would not take the confrontational course. But unfortunately the Russophobic bias of members of Congress prevailed.” Remarkably, Lavrov reiterated Russia’s commitment, despite the sanctions, to the Putin-Trump Hamburg agreements “to get the cooperation started on cybersecurity and a joint effort against cybercrimes and the prevention of them.” Russia’s Foreign Ministry also hopes for contacts with the State Department on the North Korea problem, saying such communications “would be useful.” Moscow is also expecting Kurt Volker, the US envoy on Ukraine, to meet with his Russian counterpart Vladislav Surkov “very soon.” Similarly, Russian diplomacy has seemingly special hopes for the Ryabkov-Shannon mechanism as a main (crisis) communication channel for bilateral relations, where US Undersecretary Thomas Shannon has contact with Russian counterpart Sergei Ryabkov.