Putin Meets Tillerson as Russia Bashes U.S. Foreign Policy

  • Lavrov criticizes ‘ambiguous’ U.S. policy at Tillerson meeting
  • Kremlin calls demand to abandon Syria’s Assad ‘absurd’

Tillerson Says U.S.-Russia Relations Are at a Low Point

President Vladimir Putin began talks with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the Kremlin after pushing back against demands that Russia abandon Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad over a chemical-weapons attack.

Putin is meeting with Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after the two top diplomats held talks Wednesday in Moscow, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. The meeting is taking place after Putin complained that relations with the U.S. are now worse than under President Barack Obama, while Lavrov criticized the Trump administration’s “ambiguous and contradictory” foreign policy.

Sergei Lavrov and Rex Tillerson in Moscow, April 12.

Photographer: Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images

It’s “quite absurd” for the U.S. to demand that Russia abandon Assad as this would mean ending support for his forces that are fighting against Islamic State and other terrorist groups in Syria, Peskov earlier told reporters in a conference call.

The first visit to Moscow by a senior official of President Donald Trump’s administration is taking place amid heightened tensions after the U.S. accused the Assad government of a chemical-weapons attack in Idlib province. Trump ordered an airstrike with 59 cruise missiles on a Syrian airbase last week in response, while the U.S. has accused Russia of covering up the atrocity. The U.S. and its allies are trying to increase pressure on Russia to end its support for Assad, which has been crucial in keeping the regime in power after six years of civil war.

‘Sharp Difference’

Lavrov began his talks with Tillerson, which lasted about three hours, with a barbed remark about prospects for improved ties. Russia’s “heard a lot of things from Washington regarding the current state and outlook” of relations, while it saw “some very troubling actions” in Syria, he said.

“It’s fundamentally important not to let these actions happen again in the future,” Lavrov said. Russia’s ready for dialogue with the U.S. on an “equal footing,” he said.

Tillerson told Lavrov that the meeting will “further clarify areas of sharp difference so that we can better understand why these differences exist and what prospects for narrowing those differences may be.”

A State Department official, who asked not to be identified, said later that the discussions centered around Syria and North Korea, with the two sides able to agree on a couple of principles: they both want a denuclearized Korean peninsula, and a unified Syria. The question now is whether they can turn those ideas into areas of further agreement, said the official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the talks.

Friendship Order

The Kremlin refused to confirm before the meeting with Putin, which began without apparent delay, that the president would see Tillerson, who was given Russia’s Order of Friendship in 2013 for his “big contribution” to energy ties as head of Exxon Mobil Corp. While Putin kept Tillerson’s predecessor, John Kerry, waiting three hours on his first visit to Russia as secretary of state in 2013, a failure to meet on this occasion would have been perceived as a snub.

Putin complained that trust between Russia and the U.S. under Trump “at the working level, especially at the military level, hasn’t improved; rather it’s deteriorated,” according to a Kremlin transcript published Wednesday of an interview with the Mir TV channel.

Russian relations with the U.S. all but broke down under the Obama administration amid friction over Syria and the conflict in Ukraine. While Russia had high hopes of a new era of cooperation after Trump repeatedly praised Putin during the presidential election campaign, tensions have spiralled over the Syrian crisis.

Tillerson said Tuesday that Putin’s government has aligned itself with an “unreliable partner” in Assad, whose reign is coming to an end. The Syrian conflict has become enmeshed with the battle against Islamic State and drawn in the U.S., Russia, Iran and Turkey, as well as multiple extremist groups and militias backed by regional powers such as Saudi Arabia.

‘Public Pressure’

“Putin has built his reputation on never conceding to any public pressure,” said Gleb Kuznetsov, a political expert and consultant to the Kremlin on domestic policies. “An ultimatum will lead to Putin strengthening his support for Assad and this will intensify the Syrian conflict, turning it into a conflict between the West and Russia.”

The diplomatic maneuvering is likely to continue when Putin meets Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli in Moscow on Thursday, a day before Lavrov holds talks with his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Muallem and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in the Russian capital.

Accusing Russia of spreading disinformation, officials in Washington on Tuesday published a four-page document that they said contained evidence of the chemical-weapons attack including satellite images, reports from the scene and details of exposure gathered from victims. The U.S. “is confident that the Syrian regime conducted a chemical weapons attack, using the nerve agent sarin, against its own people,” according to the document.

Chemical Weapons

The Syrian government met its obligations to destroy chemical weapons “as far as we know” under a 2013 agreement brokered by Russia and the U.S., Putin said in the Mir interview. “If any doubts have appeared, then it’s possible to carry out checks” by international investigators, said Putin, who’s compared the U.S. accusations to the faulty intelligence used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Russia has “absolutely reliable information” that the Idlib incident happened after Syrian SU-22 jets struck a store controlled by terrorists for manufacturing chemical weapons to be used in Syria and Iraq, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters in Moscow on Wednesday. The U.S. and its allies are trying “to promote already established conclusions of an accusatory nature,” he said.

The U.S. says it has images showing the bomb left a crater in a road rather than hitting a building.

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