MOSCOW — In their first publicly announced conversation since the United States launched a Tomahawk cruise-missile strike in Syria last month, President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the humanitarian crisis in Syria in a phone call Tuesday, with both countries expressing interest in working toward a cease-fire in the region.
The two men also discussed the possibility of trying to organize a personal meeting at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg in July, according to the White House and the Kremlin.
The phone call came amid escalating tensions between Russia and the United States in recent weeks, following a targeted military strike on a Syrian air base in April that Trump ordered in retaliation for a sarin nerve-agent attack allegedly carried out by the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“President Trump and President Putin agreed that the suffering in Syria has gone on for far too long and that all parties must do all they can to end the violence,” the White House said in a readout of the call.
The White House described the conversation as “a very good one,” while the Kremlin called it “businesslike and constructive.”
But the dueling readouts contained some discrepancies. Though both governments spoke of a cease-fire, with the United States announcing that it planned to send a representative to the cease-fire talks that begin in Kazakhstan on Wednesday, the Trump administration also said the two leaders spoke of establishing safe zones in Syria. The Russian government, however, did not mention the possibility of safe zones.
The conversation also included, according to both readouts, a discussion of fighting terrorism in the Middle East, and the “dangerous situation” in North Korea.
Saying that lasting peace in Syria is impossible without the participation of the United States, Putin expressed hope Tuesday — ahead of his conversation with Trump — that Moscow and Washington could agree on how to end the six-year-old conflict.
“I hope that we will achieve understanding on joint measures in this very important and very delicate area of international politics,” Putin said at a nationally broadcast news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who met with the Russian leader Tuesday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Putin has said the chemical attack, which killed more than 80 people, was a provocation by rebel forces, an assertion the Trump administration has dismissed while placing the blame on Assad. Trump, who spent his election campaign expressing admiration for Putin, said after the missile strike that relations with Russia “may be at an all-time low.”
The two presidents spoke after Trump’s inauguration in January and again when Trump offered condolences in the wake of an April 3 bombing in the St. Petersburg subway that claimed 16 lives.
“Certainly, without involvement of such a country as the U.S., these problems cannot be solved efficiently,” Putin said.
On Monday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed in a phone conversation to meet on the sidelines of an Arctic Council meeting next week in Fairbanks, Alaska, according to State Department and Russian officials.
Putin has orchestrated a peace process in Syria that has brought together competing regional powers Iran and Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is visiting Sochi on Wednesday to discuss Syria with the Russian leader.
But despite Putin’s expressed hope for a rapprochement with Trump over Syria and the cooperative tone of Tuesday’s phone call as expressed in the readouts from the White House and Kremlin, some Russian analysts have ruled out cooperation between Russian and U.S. forces.
The American demand to remove Assad “rules out the possibility of Russian-American cooperation in Syria, because we won’t allow the removal of Assad before his term is up,” Dmitry V. Suslov, deputy director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, said recently. “Of course, we will not give in to such blackmail.”
Russia is committed to a peace process, put together by Putin, that brings together Turkey, Iran and Syrian rebel groups. Putin also wants to use Syria as the site of Russia’s permanent military base in the Middle East.
Konstantin Sivkov, a member of the Russian Academy of Rocket and Artillery Science, said that “an alliance with the United States is impossible.”
At the heart of Russian uncertainty was the “impulsiveness of decision-making” that led Trump to order the April 7 missile strike on a Syrian government air base.
“The lack of consideration of these decisions, and lack of a clear goal and assessment of the consequences, sharply raises the possibility of military conflict,” he said.
Merkel, meanwhile, arrived in Russia to meet with Putin as German industry stepped up pressure on her to lay the groundwork for improved economic relations with Moscow. Those relations have been dampened by international sanctions tied to the Kremlin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its proxy war on behalf of separatists in eastern Ukraine.
But Merkel and Putin sparred over Ukraine, where a peace process worked out with the German chancellor’s considerable effort, called the Minsk accords, has bogged down, with both sides accusing the other of breaking cease-fire agreements.
“I would like us to make sure that the sanctions are lifted upon the implementation of the Minsk accords,” Merkel said at the news conference.
In Ukraine, many oppose the stipulation in the Minsk accords that would allow two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine broad autonomy. Kiev considers it a Kremlin ploy to prevent Ukraine from integration with Western European organizations.
The issue is a matter of national pride in Russia, where nightly reports on state-controlled news programs tell of atrocities by Ukrainian “fascists” while denying the involvement of Russian armed forces in the conflict. Tuesday was the third anniversary of an event in which Russia says Ukrainian nationalists in Odessa forced people into a building and burned them alive.
“Those responsible have still not been held accountable and have not been punished,” Putin said. “The international community cannot either forget about that or allow such barbarous crimes to be committed again in the future.”
A Western condition for the lifting of sanctions has been Russia’s return of Crimea to Ukraine, which Moscow has ruled out.
Alexei Pushkov, a senior Russian legislator, tweeted Sunday that neither “sanctions nor resolutions will change the fact of the unification of Russia and Crimea. They can kick themselves, but they can’t have it back.”
Merkel also brought up allegations that authorities in the Russian province of Chechnya arrested 100 gay men, at least three of whom died, according to the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said last month that Moscow had received no confirmation that any violations against gays took place.
“I asked the president to use his influence to protect the rights of minorities,” Merkel said.
Putin, in response to a question about the detention of protesters in Russia, said Russian police behave far more “liberally” and with more restraint than European authorities, “who use tear gas and truncheons to break up demonstrations.”
Another cause for tensions between Germany and Russia is the assertion from European political parties that Russia is meddling in their elections with hackers and fake news stories, the same accusations that the U.S. intelligence community directed at Moscow following Trump’s election victory.
Russia backs the candidacy of right-wing leader Marine Le Pen, who will face off against centrist Emmanuel Macron in France’s presidential runoff vote Sunday.
The Kremlin has consistently denied involvement in any of the election campaigns.
“We never interfere with the political life of other countries,” Putin said Tuesday while dismissing the allegations that Russia had also interfered in the U.S. presidential election as “rumors” created “for a domestic battle.”
The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that Russia meddled in the election in favor of Trump — an issue Democrats have sought to highlight along with Trump’s positive statements about Putin during the campaign, before the airstrikes in Syria strained relations between Washington and Moscow.
“Trump’s bromance with Putin appears to be back on track,” Adrienne Watson, deputy communications director at the Democratic National Committee, said Tuesday with regard to the phone call. “Instead of sending Putin a tough message on backing Assad’s brutal regime, Trump appears to be opting for a strategy of appeasement.”
Anthony Faiola and Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin, Rick Noack in London and Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.