Rex Tillerson (R) is in Moscow for talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. (AP: Ivan Sekretarev)
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been given an unusually hostile reception at talks in Moscow, with Russian President Vladimir Putin saying trust is eroding between the United States and Russia amid the face-off over Syria.
- Vladimir Putin doubles down on his support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad
- Russian officials describe US rhetoric as “primitive” and “loutish”
- Rex Tillerson is holding talks with Sergei Lavrov and may also meet with Mr Putin
Any hope in Russia that the Trump administration would herald less confrontational relations has been dashed in the past week, after President Donald Trump fired missiles at Syria to punish Moscow’s ally for its suspected use of poison gas.
Just as Mr Tillerson sat down for talks, a senior Russian official assailed the “primitiveness and loutishness” of US rhetoric, part of a volley of statements that appeared timed to maximise the awkwardness during the first visit by a member of Mr Trump’s cabinet.
“One could say that the level of trust on a working level, especially on the military level, has not improved but has rather deteriorated,” Mr Putin said in an interview broadcast on Russian television moments after Mr Tillerson sat down with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in an ornate hall.
Mr Putin doubled down on Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, repeating denials that Mr Assad’s Government was to blame for the gas attack last week and adding a new theory that the attack may have been faked by Mr Assad’s enemies.
Moments earlier, Mr Lavrov greeted Mr Tillerson with unusually icy remarks, denouncing the missile strike on Syria as illegal and accusing Washington of behaving unpredictably.
“I won’t hide the fact that we have a lot of questions, taking into account the extremely ambiguous and sometimes contradictory ideas which have been expressed in Washington across the whole spectrum of bilateral and multilateral affairs,” Mr Lavrov said.
“And of course, that’s not to mention that apart from the statements, we observed very recently the extremely worrying actions, when an illegal attack against Syria was undertaken.”
Mr Lavrov also noted that many key State Department posts remained vacant since the new administration took office — a point of sensitivity in Washington.
One of Mr Lavrov’s deputies was even more undiplomatic.
“In general, primitiveness and loutishness are very characteristic of the current rhetoric coming out of Washington. We’ll hope that this doesn’t become the substance of American policy,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russia’s state-owned RIA news agency.
“As a whole, the administration’s stance with regards to Syria remains a mystery. Inconsistency is what comes to mind first of all.”
Tillerson seeks to ‘clarify sharp differences’
Mr Tillerson kept to more calibrated remarks, saying his aim was “to further clarify areas of sharp difference so that we can better understand why these differences exist and what the prospects for narrowing those differences may be”.
“I look forward to a very open, candid, frank exchange so that we can better define the US-Russian relationship from this point forward,” he told Mr Lavrov.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Mr Tillerson might meet Mr Putin later on Wednesday if the two top diplomats decided it would be useful to brief the Russian President on their talks.
But Mr Peskov too did not hold back his criticism, saying calls from Western powers for Russia to cut support for Mr Assad amounted to giving terrorists a free hand.
Moscow’s hostility to Trump administration figures is a sharp change from last year, when Mr Putin hailed Mr Trump as a strong figure and Russian state television was consistently full of effusive praise for him.
Moscow accused of cover-up
The White House has accused Moscow of trying to cover up Mr Assad’s use of chemical weapons after the attack on a town killed 87 people last week.
Mr Trump responded to the gas attack by firing 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian air base on Friday. Washington warned Moscow, and Russian troops at the base were not hit.
Moscow has stood by Mr Assad, saying the poison gas belonged to rebels, an explanation Washington dismisses as beyond credible.
A satellite image shows the damage following a US airstrike on the Shayrat military airbase in Syria. (AP: DigitalGlobe)
Mr Putin said that either gas belonging to the rebels was released when it was hit by a Syrian strike on a rebel arms dump, or the rebels faked the incident to discredit Mr Assad.
Mr Trump came to the presidency promising to seek closer ties with Russia and greater cooperation fighting against their common enemy in Syria, the Islamic State group.
Mr Tillerson is a former oil executive who was awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship by Mr Putin.
Last week’s poison gas attack and the US retaliation upended what many in Moscow hoped would be a transformation in relations between the two countries, which reached a post-Cold War low under Mr Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama.