Tillerson's trip to Moscow, right after he flies to Italy for a meeting of ministers from the Group of Seven countries, comes at a time when the Kremlin's alleged cyberattacks during the presidential campaign and its meetings with several Trump campaign officials is being scrutinized by the FBI and Congress.
The White House appears to be trying to tackle the controversy head on by dispatching Tillerson, who conducted oil negotiations with Russia when he headed ExxonMobil and was awarded a presidential medal of friendship by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Often, U.S. and Russian diplomats meet in a third country, so they don't convey the impression either is catering to the other.
Tillerson has been notably absent from several meetings with foreign leaders, causing some critics to question whether he has much influence over foreign policy in the Trump administration. His visit to Moscow, which was first reported by Reuters, could help dispel that impression.
State Department officials would not confirm that the reason Tillerson will skip the meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels on April 5 and 6 is because he will be attending President Trump's meeting with visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Tillerson met with Xi last weekend in Beijing to discuss the growing threat from North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Hinting that Tillerson will be present when Xi talks with Trump, a State Department official said Tillerson told Xi he hoped they would meet again "very soon."
One stop that is not on Tillerson's schedule next month is NATO headquarters in Brussels, where foreign ministers from Europe will be gathering at a meeting Tillerson would normally be expected to attend. But officials said Tillerson did not consider it imperative to go because he will meet some two dozen of the same foreign ministers in Washington on Wednesday for a summit on combating the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. And he talked with many of them at a meeting in Bonn last month.
Tom Shannon, the undersecretary of state for political affairs who is the number two diplomat in the absence of a deputy secretary, will represent the United States at the NATO meeting.