MOSCOW — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with President Vladimir Putin of Russia for nearly two hours Wednesday, but the two men appeared unable to agree on the facts involving the deadly chemical weapons assault on Syrian civilians or Russian interference in the US election — much less move toward an improvement in basic relations.
“There is a low level of trust between our countries,” Tillerson told reporters at a joint news conference with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, after the first face-to-face meetings between Russian leaders and a top emissary of the Trump administration.
“The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship,” Tillerson said.
And in a news conference Wednesday, President Trump also remarked on the souring relations.
“Right now, we’re not getting along with Russia at all — we may be at an all-time low in terms of relationship with Russia,” Trump said.
The remarks appeared to be an attempt to isolate Putin for backing the Syrian government in the wake of the chemical weapons attack and to build international pressure on Moscow to change course. At the same time, Trump embraced NATO — a military alliance he had previously derided as obsolete — as an effective and vital force for peace and security in a region where Russia has been an aggressive actor.
In Moscow, both Tillerson and Lavrov said a range of issues were discussed — most notably the crises in Syria, North Korea, and Ukraine — and that both sides had agreed to establish a working group to examine, as Lavrov said, “the irritants” in relations between the United States and Russia.
Tillerson reiterated the US view that President Bashar Assad of Syria, Russia’s chief Middle East ally, was responsible for the chemical weapons assault in northern Syria on April 4 that left more than 80 people dead, sickened hundreds, and outraged the world.
Lavrov reiterated the Russian view that the facts about the chemical weapons attack had yet to be determined, and denounced what he described as the “media hysteria” surrounding the assault.
Further punctuating the Syria dispute, Russia vetoed a Western-backed resolution at the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday condemning the chemical attack.
It was the eighth time in the six-year-old Syria conflict that Russia, one of the five permanent Security Council members, had used its veto power to shield the Syrian government. But in a possible sign of Russia’s isolation on the chemical weapons issue, China, the permanent member that usually votes with Russia on Syria resolutions, abstained.
Tillerson said Russian interference in the presidential election was a settled fact. In response, Lavrov gave what amounted to a long lecture on what he described as an extensive list of US efforts to achieve “regime change” around the world, from Serbia to Iraq to Libya. He described them all as failures — an implicit warning against any efforts to achieve the same end in Syria.
For hours after Tillerson’s arrival in Moscow, it was unclear whether Putin would even meet with him because of the tense state of relations, which have worsened just in the past few weeks. Their meeting lasted almost two hours and ended just before 8 p.m.
Trump, in an interview with Fox Business that aired Wednesday morning, suggested Russia will face mounting calls to work toward a peaceful resolution in Syria.
“Putin is backing a person that’s truly an evil person, and I think it’s very bad for Russia, I think it’s very bad for mankind, it’s very bad for this world,” Trump added in the interview.
In the 24 hours before Tillerson landed in Moscow, the White House accused Putin’s government of covering up evidence that Assad had been responsible for sarin gas attacks on its own people, launched from a base where Russian troops are operating.
Putin shot back that the charge was fabricated and accused the administration of Trump, who US intelligence agencies believe benefited from Russian cyberattacks intended to embarrass his Democratic rival during the election campaign, of fabricating the evidence to create a fake confrontation.
“This reminds me very much of the events of 2003, when US representatives in the Security Council showed alleged chemical weapons discovered in Iraq,” Putin said, referring to an intelligence failure that Trump has also cited in recent months. “The exact same thing is happening now,” he charged.
He quoted two Russian writers, Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov, authors of the 1928 satire “The 12 Chairs,” and said, “ ‘It’s boring, ladies.’ We have seen this all before.”
But the diplomatic theater playing out in Moscow on a rainy Wednesday morning was far from boring: Putin, operating on home turf, was looking for any way to shape the narrative of Tillerson’s first trip here as secretary of state.
The outcome could well decide whether Trump’s oft-stated desire to remake US relations with Moscow will now disintegrate, just as similar efforts by Barack Obama did early in his presidency.
Russia said earlier this week that Putin would not meet with Tillerson, but on Wednesday the Russian leader’s spokesman, Dmitry S. Peskov, held out the possibility of a meeting later in the day. Russian leaders have greeted virtually all new secretaries of state since the end of World War II, but Peskov said any meeting would depend on how Tillerson’s other talks went.
The drama appeared to be an effort by Putin to show that he was in control.
As Tillerson entered the foreign ministry to meet Lavrov, an experienced and wily veteran of many of Russia’s post-Cold War encounters with Washington, the Russian government released another salvo against US intentions here.
The Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria V. Zakharova, said it was “useless” for Tillerson to arrive in Moscow with “ultimatums” and suggested that if he wanted any progress, he should start by getting Trump and his administration on the same page about Syria strategy.
“It is not clear what they will do in Syria and not only there,” she said on Dozhd, Russia’s independent television network. “Nobody understands what they will do in the Middle East because it is a very complicated region, forgive me for saying such a banal thing.’’
Tillerson had hoped, several weeks ago, to make the battle against the Islamic State a focus of this trip, working with Russia to seal off the last escape routes from Raqqa, in hopes of killing the remainder of the Islamic State force there.
Instead, the chemical attack in Syria — and the investigations into how and how significantly Putin interfered in the US presidential election — have overshadowed what Tillerson has insisted remains the No. 1 priority: defeating the Islamic State.