Jacquelyn Martin / AP

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has a three-point approach to the US-Russia relationship, and it looks a lot like President Obama's 2015 plan, developed during the Ukraine crisis, per Buzzfeed News, which was briefed on the classified plan.

Why it matters: Tillerson's three "pillars," and the points where his plan differs from Obama's, demonstrate how conflicted the administration is over how to improve relations with Russia while maintaining a check on Vladimir Putin's behavior.

The plan:
  • First, the U.S. will make clear to Russia that aggression — such as arming the Taliban — will not be tolerated.
  • Second, there will be engagement on issues that concern the U.S. Among these are the civil war in Syria — where Russia just threatened U.S. planes after the U.S. downed a Syrian jet — and North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
  • Third, Tillerson's plan will pursue "strategic stability" with the Kremlin — an equilibrium of cooperation on shared interests and pushback against aggression.
What's not in there:
  • "Resilience" of Russian neighbors. Tillerson's plan does not include specific measures to empower the Eastern European countries which are at risk of Russian interference, Buzzfeed reports. This element was central in Obama's approach.
  • The White House perspective. Obama's plan primarily came out of his National Security Council, but Tillerson drafted his framework from within the State Department.
What it means:

James Carafano, a defense expert on Trump's transition team, told Buzzfeed, "Putin will deliver nothing on Syria or North Korea, and this will allow Tillerson to show Trump he tried." Trump's Plan A has always been to cooperate with Russia, but if Carafano is right, Tillerson may just be going through the motions while preparing for a more confrontational strategy. In the meantime, the administration risks being stuck in no-man's land, neither meaningfully confronting Russia nor tangibly improving the relationship.

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