Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he welcomed President Donald Trump’s U.N. General Assembly speech, a markedly different reaction from many other listeners.
“I think it’s a very welcome statement, which we haven’t heard from an American leader for a very long time,” Lavrov told the Associated Press and TASS, Russia’s state news agency, on Tuesday.
Lavrov was referring specifically to one component of Trump’s spiraling speech. While the president singled out a number of nations in attendance — including Iran, a long-time source of Trump’s ire, and North Korea, which he threatened to annihilate — he also sounded a different tone at certain intervals, emphasizing efforts to minimize U.S. interference in the affairs of others.
“Strong sovereign nations let diverse countries with different values, different cultures, and different dreams not just coexist, but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect,” Trump said. “Strong sovereign nations let their people take ownership of the future and control their own destiny.”
“We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to watch,” he emphasized.
Those words stood in stark contrast to many other comments made (including Trump’s threats to tear up the Iran nuclear deal and pointed jabs at political systems in Cuba and Venezuela), but they went over well with Russia, whose rocky relationship with the United States has been defined by a mutual fear of influence and cultural capital. Under former President Barack Obama, U.S.-Russia relations only grew rockier — Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine sparked sanctions and a diplomatic scuffle, one that only worsened as Obama’s tenure drew to a close.
That mistrust has ebbed and flowed since Trump took office. During the 2016 presidential election, Trump’s interest in deepening U.S.-Russia ties and admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin went over well with the Kremlin. But that initially upbeat dynamic has soured in the time since Trump took office. Controversy over Russian interference in the U.S. election and back-and-forth over Russia’s support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad have chilled relations, something both countries acknowledge. In April, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Lavrov in Moscow, where both diplomats confirmed the strain.
“There is a low level of trust between our two countries,” Tillerson said at the time.
Several months later, the situation remained unchanged. In response to U.S. sanctions on Moscow, which came both in retaliation for interference in the election and as a belated retaliation to the expulsion of Russian diplomats by Obama, U.S. mission staff across Russia were ordered to reduce by 755 people in July — a move signaling increasingly frosty relations.
But Trump’s speech on Tuesday seemed to be the first indicator that the dynamic might be on the mend. Lavrov’s approving comments came following a meeting with Tillerson later on Tuesday. After the meeting, Lavrov said the “tit-for-tat” playing out between the United States and Russia was likely over for the time being, laying much of the blame for terse relations on the Obama administration.
“We waited very long with our tit in response to Obama’s tit,” Lavrov said, a reference to the reduction in embassy staff. “Being serious people and responsible people, and I feel Rex Tillerson is one of them, I hope that we can draw conclusions from where we are now and understand where we want to be.”
Lavrov’s reception to Trump’s speech stood in stark contrast to other responses. While Trump allies like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed his hardline comments on issues like the Iran deal, others took issue with his tone and timing.
“It was the wrong speech, at the wrong time, to the wrong audience,” Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom said.
Across East Asia, commentators and officials struggled to explain Trump’s comments, especially with regards to North Korea. Those singled out by Trump directly, meanwhile, had more striding responses. Iranian media heaped criticism upon the speech, as did officials. “It will be a great pity if this deal is destroyed by rogue newcomers to the world of politics,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday, in a pointed jab at Trump.
“Trump is not the president of the world… he can not even manage his own government,” said Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza.