Tillerson Meets Putin in Moscow With U.S.-Russia Relations at ‘Low Point’

U.S. secretary of State Rex Tillerson with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. Photo: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

After a day of meetings with Russian president Vladimir Putin and foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, U.S. secretary of State Rex Tillerson painted a grim picture of relations between Washington and Moscow.

“There is a low level of trust between our countries,” Tillerson said at a joint press conference with Lavrov. “The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.”

Tillerson met with Lavrov first Wednesday morning before both men joined Putin at the Kremlin for a two-hour sit-down. The meeting with Putin was something of a surprise after Russian officials previously said it was unlikely to happen. The last-minute scheduling has been interpreted by some as a power move on Putin’s part. Topics covered in the meeting included the war in Syria, the increasingly unstable situation in North Korea and Russia’s role in Ukraine.

In a press conference after the meetings Tillerson and Lavrov made it clear that they rarely found themselves on the same page behind closed doors. The most significant disagreement came on the issue of the recent chemical attack in Syria’s Idlib province. Tillerson said again that the U.S. believes Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was behind the attacks, while Lavrov continued to bemoan the lack of evidence that Assad was involved.

Tillerson did say something on the issue that must have pleased Moscow though. “We have no firm information to indicate there was any involvement by Russia, Russian forces, into this attack,” he said. That contradicts previous reports that say Russia knew about the attack and tried to cover it up.

Tillerson and Lavrov did manage to find a few opportunities to come together. For one, they agreed to create a “working group” to ease tensions between the nations. They also agreed to work toward a “unified, stable Syria,” Tillerson said. During the press conference, Lavrov said they also reached an agreement to set up an international investigation into the sarin gas attack in Syria. Tillerson’s spokesman later disputed this though, telling the AP “no agreement was reached.”

Wednesday’s meetings came after an icy reception for Tillerson upon his arrival in Moscow. Before the meetings, Lavrov warned the United States against carrying out an air strike on Syria similar to the one launched last week. Lavrov called the strike a “an unlawful attack against Syria” and added that Russia considers it “fundamentally important not to let these actions happen again.”

Lavrov didn’t limit his criticism of the U.S. to the cruise-missile strike on the Syrian airfield: He knocked the entire foreign-policy message coming out of Washington, D.C., saying Russia has “a lot of questions regarding the very ambiguous and contradictory ideas on a whole range of bilateral and international issues.” He even pointed out that all the vacancies in the U.S. State Department make it difficult to tell what’s going on in the U.S. capital.

Tillerson Meets Putin, Says Relations Are at ‘Low Point’