MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin met with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Moscow on Wednesday as the two countries traded sharp accusations about a chemical weapons attack in Syria.
Tillerson, making the first visit by a Trump Cabinet official, went to the Kremlin in the early evening to meet with the Russian leader, the U.S. Embassy and the Kremlin said. Though President Donald Trump has spoken with Putin by phone, the meeting was believed to be the first between Putin and a top member of Trump’s administration since the new American president took office in January.
The agenda for the meeting wasn’t announced. The two leaders were expected to discuss disagreement about whether Syrian President Bashar Assad or his opposition was responsible for a chemical weapons attack last week that led to U.S. retaliatory cruise missiles. Conflicts over Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Russia’s alleged interference in the U.S. presidential campaign were also likely topics.
The meeting was steeped in geopolitical intrigue, with neither country saying ahead of time if it would take place or not.
Earlier Wednesday, Russia’s top diplomat accused the United States of carrying out an unlawful attack against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces.
Giving Tillerson a chilly reception, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia was trying to understand the “real intentions” of the Trump administration. He said Moscow has lots of questions about the “very ambiguous” and “contradictory” ideas emanating from Washington.
“We have seen very alarming actions recently with an unlawful attack against Syria,” Lavrov said, referring to the cruise missiles Trump ordered 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.”
It was an ominous start to Tillerson’s visit. Tillerson conceded the two world powers had “sharp differences” that have obstructed cooperation but voiced optimism that their talks could narrow those differences.
“We both have agreed our lines of communication shall always remain open,” Tillerson said.
Trump, meanwhile, told Fox Business News that the U.S. had no plans to become more deeply involved in Syria and only did so because of last week’s deadly chemical weapons attack that killed dozens. Turkey has said tests showed sarin gas was used.
“Are we going to get involved with Syria? No,” Trump said in the interview, which aired Wednesday in the U.S. “But if I see them using gas…we have to do something.”
The palpable tension hanging over Tillerson’s trip spoke to a widening chasm between the former Cold War foes.
Only weeks ago, it appeared that Trump, who lavishly praised Putin throughout the campaign, was poised for a potentially historic rapprochement with Russia. But any expectations of an easy rapport have crashed into reality as the two countries trade escalating accusations over what happened last week in rebel-held territory in northern Syria.
“Frankly, Putin is backing a person that’s truly an evil person,” Trump said, referring to Assad. “I think it’s very bad for Russia. I think it’s very bad for mankind.”
Of Assad, Trump added: “This is an animal.”
And Putin, who U.S. intelligence agencies say tried to help Trump get elected, insisted that relations with the U.S. had only gone downhill since Trump took office in January.
“The level of trust at the working level, especially at the military level, has not become better but most likely has degraded,” Putin said in an interview broadcast Wednesday by state television channel Mir.
Moscow has strenuously objected to Trump’s decision to launch 59 U.S. Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base that the U.S. says was used to pummel civilians with nerve gas, resulting in 87 deaths. Russia, Assad’s staunchest ally, has insisted that Assad is blameless and that it was actually the rebels responsible for the disbursed chemical weapons.
Intelligence services from several Western countries dispute that claim. The health minister in Turkey, which treated many of the attack’s victims and conducted autopsies on others, said Tuesday that test results conducted on victims confirmed sarin gas was used