All eyes were on U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s meeting with his Russian counterpart at a gathering of foreign diplomats in Bonn, and as first encounters go, it was awkward.
Protocol dictates the two would shake hands, exchange platitudes in front of the clicking cameras, and perhaps take an impromptu question before retiring for a private chat. Russia’s Sergei Lavrov began: “Mr. Secretary of State, I thank you for this opportunity to have the first contact after you have assumed the office and I would like to congratulate you once again for that.”
Lavrov also took a question about the turmoil back in Washington over the resignation of President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn. “You should know we do not interfere in the domestic matters of other countries,” he said.
That’s when things veered off script. As Tillerson began to speak, journalists got a swift signal to exit the room. The episode irked Lavrov, who openly wondered why U.S. aides pushed out Russian and American reporters without allowing them to listen to the rest of the opening remarks.
“Why did you shush them out?” Lavrov said.
The awkward moment reflected how Tillerson is still adjusting to the highly public life of America’s top diplomat after years answering only to his shareholders as chief executive of Exxon Mobil Corp.
After the meeting concluded, Tillerson appeared before the media to read out a statement, the first time he has done so since speaking before State Department employees on Feb. 2.
“Foreign Minister Lavrov and I had a productive meeting,” Tillerson said. “We discussed a range of issues of mutual concern.”
He pledged to keep working with Russia in areas where the two sides can find common ground but will stand up for the values of the U.S. and its allies. He called on Russia to honor its commitments under the Minsk agreement to end the fighting in Ukraine’s Donbass region. Lavrov, speaking separately, said that the issue of sanctions on Russia was not discussed.
Tillerson’s statement took less than a minute to read. He then walked out, ignoring a reporter who asked if he’d ever met Lavrov before.