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Tillerson Meets With Russian Foreign Minister in First High Level Meeting Since Sanctions

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov Sunday in the highest level meeting between the Trump administration and the Kremlin since the U.S. passed new sanctions against Russia.
Image: Sergei Lavrov adn Rex Tillerson
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) shakes hands with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson after a press conference on April 12, 2017 in Moscow. FileAlexander Nemenov / AFP - Getty Images

MANILA, Philippines — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met Sunday for the first time since the U.S. imposed sanctions last week that Russia said ended hopes for better ties.

Tillerson and Lavrov met at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) forum in Manila, an international summit of Asian diplomats. It marked the first time high level officials of Russia and the United States came together following the White House's sanctions on Russia and the Kremlin's retaliatory limits on U.S. diplomatic presence in the country.

Neither responded at the start of the meeting to shouted questions on the impact the sanctions would have on their discussions. After a little over an hour, the two emerged, talking longer than expected.

Related: Donald Trump Signs Russia Sanctions Bill for ‘Sake of National Unity’

"We felt the readiness of our U.S. colleagues to continue dialogue. I think there's no alternative to that," the Russian Foreign Minister said following the over hour long meeting.

Tillerson then proceeded to his motorcade, making no comment.

The secretary of State also met with both his South Korean and Chinese counterparts Sunday to discuss the next step towards the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Washington
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov before their meeting at the State Department on May 10, 2017.Yuri Gripas / Reuters

President Trump and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley had praised China Saturday for backing the strict measures against the rogue state and, following Tillerson’s meeting with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho Sunday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters he urged Pyongyang not to violate the recently passed resolution. “At this critical moment, we urge every party to remain calm, to take a decision that helps to reduce tensions, resume negotiations and secure regional peace development,” said Wang Yi.

Tillerson did not attend a gala dinner following the first day of the three-day forum. Senior Adviser R.C. Hammond later told NBC News that Tillerson skipped the dinner to prepare for the second day of meetings.

"It was a productive day one at ASEAN," Hammond said. "Good alignment on message to Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The Secretary spent a few hours preparing for day two, still a lot to do."

The North Korean Foreign Minister attended the dinner, but Hammond denied any connection between that and Tillerson's absence.

Tillerson and Lavrov's talks showed a willingness of the two countries to cooperate on bilateral issues despite rising tensions, fueled by comments by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who on Wednesday wrote in Facebook statement that the United States' sanctions on Russia were a "declaration of a full-fledged economic war" and ended hopes for improving relations between the countries.

Related: Putin Orders U.S. to Cut 755 Diplomatic Employees in Russia

Lavrov said Tillerson asked about Russia's retaliatory decision to expel 755 American diplomats from the country.

"He was primarily interested ... in details of those decisions that we grudgingly made in response to the law on anti-Russian sanctions," Lavrov said. He added that he "provided an explanation" to the Secretary of State.

Lavrov later said on Russian state TV that Tillerson told him that Kurt Volker, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO and now special representative in the Ukraine, would meet Putin senior aide Vladimir Surkov "in the nearest future."

Tillerson sent Volker to Ukraine last month to assess the deadlocked conflict in the ex-Soviet republic, which the U.S. cited as part of the reason for the sanctions it imposed on Russia.

"We would be interested to see what impression the U.S. special envoy has on the current state of affairs," Lavrov said.

Image: Kurt D. Volker speaks at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
Kurt D. Volker speaks at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.Ryan Kelly / CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

The U.S. and Russia also showed cooperation on Saturday at the United Nations Security Council to unanimously pass the strongest economic sanctions against North Korea in a generation. The sanctions come in response to North Korea's launch of two intercontinental ballistic missiles in the last month alone, a major focus of the diplomats who gathered at the ASEAN forum.

Secretary Tillerson praised the agreement between the UN envoys Sunday, calling it a "good outcome."

"Russia is not hostage to our relations we have to work together on issues that are far more important than our bilateral relations alone," the newly appointed Russian Ambassador to the United Nations, Vassily Nebenzia, told reporters Saturday. "We are working together on issues that represent importance for international community and this is one of those."