MOSCOW – The United States and Russia laid bare their deep and dangerous divides on Syria and other matters Wednesday, as America’s top diplomat left an almost two-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin with the sense the countries have reached a “low point” in relations.
That candid assessment by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reflected the former Cold War foes’ inability to forge greater cooperation, as President Donald Trump until recently has advocated. Even the one significant agreement Moscow suggested had been reached — to investigate last week’s chemical weapons attack in Syria — was quickly rejected by Washington.
“There is a low level of trust between our two countries,” Tillerson told reporters in Moscow.
Only minutes earlier, his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, had claimed the two countries agreed work together on a probe of the April 4 chemical weapons attack in northern Syria that prompted retaliatory American missile strikes. Washington blames Russia’s ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Moscow says Syrian rebels are responsible.
But R.C. Hammond, a senior Tillerson aide, said flatly: “No agreements were reached.” And shortly afterward, Russia vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have demanded Syrian cooperation on the investigation.
More than 80 people were killed in what the U.S. has described as a nerve gas attack that Assad’s forces undoubtedly carried out. Russia says rebels were responsible for whatever chemical agent was found, which the Trump administration calls a disinformation campaign.
The news conference came after Putin met Tillerson for the first time since Trump took office. The diplomats know each other well from Tillerson’s days as Exxon Mobil CEO. Putin had even honored Tillerson with a friendship award.
Beyond Syria, Russia’s alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential election also hovered over what was the first face-to-face encounter between Putin and any Trump administration Cabinet member.
Lavrov blasted U.S. claims that it has “irrefutable evidence” of election interference.
“We have not seen a single fact, or even a hint of facts,” he said. “I do not know who saw them. No one showed us anything, no one said anything, although we repeatedly asked to produce the details on which these unfounded accusations lie.”
He also rejected U.S. claims of incontrovertible evidence that Assad ordered the chemical attack.
Still, Tillerson sought to stress the positives from his meetings. He said working groups would be established to improve U.S.-Russian ties and identify problems. He said the two sides would also discuss disagreements on Syria and how to end the country’s six-year civil war.
But such hopes appeared optimistic as the diplomats outlined their sharply diverging views on Syria. Until the chemical attack, the Trump administration had sought to step back from the U.S. position that Assad should leave power. But Tillerson repeated the administration’s new belief that “the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end.”
Tillerson said Syria’s government had committed more than 50 attacks using chlorine or other chemical weapons over the duration of the conflict. And he suggested that possible war crimes charges could be levied against the Syrian leader. Russia has never publicly acknowledged any such attacks by Assad’s forces and has tried for the past 18 months to help him expand his authority in Syria.
The civil war is separate from the U.S.-led effort against the Islamic State group in the north of the country.
While the most immediate U.S.-Russian dispute concerned culpability for the chemical weapons, broader disagreements over everything from Ukraine to Russia’s support for once-fringe candidates in European elections were among other sore points.
Steeped in geopolitical intrigue, the meeting between Putin and Tillerson wasn’t formally confirmed until the last minute, following days of speculation about whether the Russian would refuse to grant the former oil executive an audience. Putin’s decision to host Tillerson signaled Moscow’s intent to maintain communication with the U.S. even as the countries bash each other publicly in louder and louder tones.
Tillerson was greeted frostily in the Russian capital as Lavrov began their meeting Wednesday by demanding to know the U.S.’s “real intentions.”
“We have seen very alarming actions recently with an unlawful attack against Syria,” Lavrov said, referring to the 59 Tomahawk missiles Trump launched at a Syrian air base to punish Assad for using chemical weapons. “We consider it of utmost importance to prevent the risks of replay of similar action in the future.”
Trump and others have indeed threatened similar action. But in a Fox Business Network interview, the U.S. president said he wouldn’t intervene militarily against Assad unless the Syrian leader resorts to using weapons of mass destruction again. “Are we going to get involved with Syria? No,” Trump said. But, he added, “I see them using gas … we have to do something.”
Only weeks ago, it appeared that Trump, who praised Putin throughout the U.S. election campaign, was poised for a potentially historic rapprochement with Russia. Any expectations of an easy rapport have crashed into reality amid the nasty back-and-forth over Syria and ongoing U.S. investigations into Russia’s activity connected to the U.S. presidential election.
Allegations of collusion between Russian officials and Trump campaign associates also have weakened Trump’s ability to sweeten any offer for greater cooperation, such as by easing economic sanctions on Moscow related to its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.