Russian President Vladimir Putin and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held more than two hours of frank conversation Wednesday in the Kremlin amid tensions over a U.S. airstrike against a Syria air base blamed for last week’s deadly chemical attack. The unscheduled talks between Putin and the secretary came as Moscow warned against the U.S. repeating its missile strike on a Syrian air base.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at left … Russian President Vladimir Putin right
In an interview broadcast Wednesday before the meeting with Tillerson, Putin said relations with the U.S. have worsened in the first few months of Trump’s presidency.
“It can be said that the level of trust at the working level, especially at the military level, has not become better but most likely has degraded,” he told state broadcaster Mir TV.
Putin also charged that the U.S. broke international law by striking the air base without providing evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met
The meeting lasted for almost two hours to see if they could rescue relations between the world’s mightiest military powers. Russia’s alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential election also hovered over the first face-to-face encounter between Putin and a Trump administration Cabinet member.
It was not the first meeting between the two men. Tillerson, as CEO of ExxonMobil, forged a close relationship with the Russian leader over business dealings in the past. In 2013, Putin personally awarded Tillerson the Russian Order of Friendship when the two met to negotiate ExxonMobil’s $50 billion deal for Russian oil and gas rights.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met and spoke to the press after the Putin-Tillerson meeting
Tillerson and Lavrov spoke to the press after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in an extended display of US-Russian disagreements over the chemical attack that left more than 80 dead; the role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s future; US actions in the Middle East; and Russian involvement in the US election.
Still, the two diplomats hinted that they could find common ground on this issue. Tillerson said that the US wouldn’t dictate how Assad’s departure takes place, saying, "We leave that to the process going forward," and added that it’s important his departure "is done in an orderly way" and that it will "take a pace of its own."
Lavrov, meanwhile, said that Russia is "not staking everything on a personality … we are simply insisting that everybody sits around the table and talks about it."
Lavrov also announced that Putin has agreed to reinstate a military "deconfliction" channel to ensure there are no unintended clashes in the skies above Syria. And Tillerson said that the two sides had agreed to establish a working group that would address smaller frictions and aim to make progress on larger differences.
The news conference came after Lavrov issued a warning to Tillerson Wednesday against any further US strikes on the Syrian regime. Russia is Syria’s most powerful ally.
Russia has rejected the US conclusion that Damascus was responsible for last week’s chemical attack, which killed 89 people and prompted the US to carry out its first strike against the Syrian regime in the six-year conflict, taking out aircraft and infrastructure at a Syrian military air base.
"The facts we have are conclusive" that the attack was planned and carried by Syrian government forces, Tillerson said, adding that the US was "quite confident of that" and describing it as "just the latest in a series of uses of chemical weapons by the Assad regime."
Lavrov countered, "It is perfectly obvious the subject is one we diverge on." He floated an alternate theory that "some of these stockpiles are being controlled by extremists," and added, "Russia is insisting on an objective investigation" and will protest if it does not take place.
Tillerson said he told the Russian leader that current relations between the two countries are at a "low point" … "There is a low level of trust between our two countries" … "The world’s two foremost nuclear owners cannot have this kind of relationship."
Lavrov said that the U.S. and Russia have agreed on the need for a United Nations probe of the Syrian chemical attack … an independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding the chemical attack and the U.S. response to "try and identify the culprits" … a step that could dial down the rhetoric between the two nations for now.
The two sides expressed their agreement over the need to defeat the Islamic State in the region. Lavrov said defeating the terrorist group is a more important priority than Assad remaining in power. Lavrov also that Putin could restore a military hotline with the U.S. if Washington focuses on fighting the Islamic State and other extremist groups.
Both officials addressed the question of allegations of Russian interference in the U.S. elections. Tillerson said there was no talk of additional sanctions in the wake of U.S. charges over the issue, but noted that it was an issue raised by Congress. "We are mindful of the seriousness of that particular interference in our elections and I am sure that Russia is mindful of it as well." Lavrov, echoing past denials of any Russian hacking or other interference in the electoral process, said Moscow hasn’t seen “a single fact, or even a hint at facts” proving the U.S. allegations of Russian interference.