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The Trump administration has yet to decide how to respond to Russia's move to expel hundreds of American diplomats, but plans to deliver a response to Moscow by September 1, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said today. A day after sitting down in the Philippines with Russia's top diplomat, Tillerson said he'd asked "clarifying questions" about the Kremlin's retaliation announced last month following new sanctions passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump. The Trump administration has struggled to determine how the move will affect the US diplomatic presence in Russia, as well as the broader implications for the troubled relationship between the nuclear-armed powers. Despite the Russian move, which seemed to plunge the two countries even further into acrimony, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov emerged from the meeting declaring a readiness for more engagement with the US on North Korea, Syria and Ukraine, among other issues. Tillerson broadly echoed that sentiment, saying the two countries had critical national security issues to discuss despite deep disagreements on some matters. "I don't think it is useful to just cut everything off on one single issue," Tillerson said following his first meeting with Lavrov since the new sanctions were imposed. "These are two very large countries and we should find places that we can work together, let's try to work together. Places we have our differences, we're going to have to continue to find a way to address those." Tillerson also said that Russia has been showing "some willingness" to start talking about a resolution to the crisis in Ukraine, devoid of real progress for years. That assessment came as Lavrov announced that the Trump administration had committed to sending its new special envoy for Ukraine negotiations, Kurt Volker, to Moscow to discuss next steps. Yet several obstacles hang over any attempt to pursue a more functional US-Russia relationship: the new US sanctions, Russia's retaliatory move to expel diplomats, and the ongoing US Justice Department investigation into Russia's election meddling and potential Trump campaign collusion. Fearing Trump might move inappropriately to ease sanctions on Russia, Congress last month passed new legislation that both added more sanctions and made it harder for the president to lift them.
Trump and Tillerson opposed the legislation, but facing a likely veto override, Trump begrudgingly signed the bill. Moscow's response to the sanctions was to announce it would force the US to cut its embassy and consulate staff in Russia by 755 people. That move stoked confusion in Washington, given that the US is believed to have far fewer than 755 American employees in Russia.