MOSCOW — The rift between the United States and Russia was laid bare Wednesday when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held his first direct talks with Russia’s president. Their discussions failed to ease deepening tensions over Syria and Washington’s demands that Moscow abandon its main Middle East ally.
“There is a low level of trust between our countries,” Tillerson said in a news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “The world’s two primary nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.”
Wednesday’s meeting brought no indication that the relationship would improve any time soon.
After Tillerson spent three hours talking with Lavrov and almost two hours at the Kremlin with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lavrov, sitting three feet from Tillerson, aired a long list of grievances with the United States, some dating back many years.
“Unfortunately, we’ve got some differences with regards to a majority of those issues,” Lavrov lamented.
The only concession that Tillerson appeared to have extracted from the Russians was that Putin offered to restore a hotline aimed at avoiding accidents in the air over Syria. Russia had suspended that effort after U.S. missile strikes on a Syrian air base following an April 4 chemical weapons attack on a village in rebel territory. Even this tiny success was conditional; Lavrov said the deal would apply only if the United States and its allies targeted terrorists — not Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
Hopes may never have been high, especially after Russia sounded a defiant note before Tillerson arrived in Moscow. But if this was the chance to find common ground before the Trump administration attempts any new action on Syria, it has ended in failure.
The Russians used Tillerson’s visit as a chance to reassert Moscow’s firm stance on Syria: that it will not abide by any effort to remove Assad from power.
Russia effectively hid from public view the hit that the Kremlin took to its standing in the region because of the chemical weapons attack, presumably by Assad. Just two weeks ago, Russia was in the driver’s seat in Syria, as the lead military and diplomatic player in a peace process involving Turkey, Iran, the Kurds and rebel groups, all orchestrated by Putin. The most important part of this was that the United States was not getting in the way.
In an instant last week, when more than 50 Tomahawk missiles came crashing down around a Syrian air base, that all changed, and since then, the Kremlin has been fighting a rearguard action aimed at dulling the Trump administration’s ultimatum that Russia must change sides or else.
Everything Putin did appeared aimed at minimizing the effect of Tillerson’s visit. He and his officials dismissed U.S. evidence that Assad had carried out the attack, and then Putin added a bombshell prediction of his own: Unnamed forces were going to carry out more chemical weapons attacks and blame them on Assad.
Tillerson reiterated the U.S. belief that Assad ordered the attack, though he stepped back from the U.S. charge that Russia was covering up Assad’s culpability.
“With respect to Russia’s complicity or knowledge of the chemical weapons attack, we have no firm information to indicate that there was any involvement by Russia, Russian forces into this attack,” he said. “What we do know, and we have very firm and high confidence in our conclusions, is the attack was planned and carried out by regime forces at the direction of Bashar al-Assad.”
Lavrov had a ready retort: “This is obviously the subject where our views differ.”
Lavrov called the evidence cited by Tillerson “hypothetical” and demanded that the United Nations investigate. Soon afterward, however, Russia vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for an investigation.
There were only a handful of issues Tillerson and Lavrov said they broadly agreed on — that the Korean Peninsula should be denuclearized, that Syria should be “unified and stable” after the Islamic State is defeated, and that there should be more communication between U.S. and Russian diplomats and militaries. Tillerson said both nations would set up a “working group” to seek ways to ease tensions.
On most issues — the chemical attack and Assad, Russia’s support for separatists fueling conflict in Ukraine, and Russian interference in the U.S. election chief among them — the diplomats offered different explanations and facts.
There were many times when it must not have been easy to be secretary of state Wednesday.
Lavrov seemed to delight in recalling U.S. attempts to oust dictators in Sudan and Libya. He mocked NATO’s military incursion in Kosovo in 1999. He gleefully recalled the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction that led to the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. A Russian reporter reminded him that President Trump called Assad “an animal” and that White House spokesman Sean Spicer had to apologize for his inept and inaccurate comparison of Assad and Hitler.
Trump himself seemed to deliver the coup de grâce. Shortly after Tillerson and Lavrov finished speaking to reporters, Trump said in a news conference that the United States is “not getting along with Russia at all” and that their relations are at an “all-time low.”
That sounded like something both Lavrov and Tillerson agreed with.