Putin receives US Secretary of State, Russian Foreign Minister

16 April, 2017, 00:53 | Author: Cecelia Webb
  • U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov shake hands prior to their talks in Moscow Wednesday

It was a grim assessment that echoed the words of the president's top diplomat, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who left an nearly two-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow declaring the countries had reached a "low point" in relations. He said working groups would be established to improve US-Russian ties and identify problems. Less than 24 hours later, following a telephone call with Trump, Trudeau said publicly Canada now believed Assad was to blame and backed the air strikes.

In a paradoxical response to the strike, Moscow froze the military hotline with the U.S. The Russian move amounted to a stark warning: Don't launch any more strikes or risk unpredictable consequences.

But the civil war in Syria has driven a wedge between Moscow and Washington, upending what many in Russian Federation hoped would be a transformation in relations, which reached a post-Cold War low under Trump's predecessor Barack Obama.

Beyond Syria, Russia's alleged meddling in the United States presidential election also hovered over what was the first face-to-face encounter between Mr Putin and any Trump administration Cabinet member.

Speaking to journalists alongside Mr Lavrov, Mr Tillerson said: "There is a low level of trust between our two countries".

Haley, the United Nations envoy, said removing Assad from power was a priority, whereas Tillerson said he merely "hoped" the Syrian people would choose to oust Assad and reiterated that defeating ISIS was the US' first priority in Syria.

Meanwhile, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani said that Qatar agrees with Russian Federation that it is necessary to conduct a thorough investigation into the chemical attack in the Syrian province of Idlib.

Differences over a US missile strike on a Syrian air base last week also bubbled to the surface.

Tillerson took a more diplomatic tone in his opening remarks, saying that he hoped to clarify "areas of common objectives, areas of common interests, even when our tactical approaches may be different". According to Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, it was meant to deter future chemical weapons use, while showing the world that the U.S. would "not passively stand by" when such atrocities are carried out.

But Russia insists that there should be an investigation. US intelligence agencies have said similar.

At that briefing, the official also noted, "We know the Russians have chemical expertise in-country".

The news conference came after Russian President Vladimir Putin met the top American diplomat for nearly two hours to see if they could rescue relations between the world's mightiest military powers.

Moscow's hostility to Trump administration figures is a sharp change from a year ago, when Putin hailed Trump as a strong figure and Russian state television was often full of effusive praise for him.

He also said that the evidence "available so far" to the U.S. and its allies "is very uncertain, if you read it carefully". But he told a news conference at the White House with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg that alliance members still need to pay their fair share for the European security umbrella.

The talks were a test of US-Russia relations which have been marred with questions over Syria, and alleged meddling in the US elections. "But we're going to see what happens", Trump told the news conference.

He said Assad's government was responsible.

"Are we insisting on it? No. No", Trump said. But, he added, "I see them using gas ... we have to do something".

Even the one significant agreement Moscow suggested had been reached - to investigate last week's chemical weapons attack in Syria - was quickly rejected by Washington.

Syria's government has denied responsibility for the gas attack in a rebel-held area of northern Syria that killed at least 87 people, many of them children.

Despite hopes of an improvement in ties under Trump, the fallout over the alleged chemical attack and United States bombing meant the Syrian conflict - in which more than 320,000 people have died - has dominated Tillerson's visit.

And he declared that numerous divisions between Moscow and Washington were the result of "timebombs" left behind by former president Barack Obama's administration.

The meeting comes as early expectations of an easy rapport between the Trump administration and Russian Federation are crashing into reality.

Tillerson is a former oil executive who was awarded Russia's Order of Friendship by Putin.

The fallout over the chemical attack follows comments by the Trump administration and Russian Federation that a reset in relations between the countries was possible after decades of hostility.

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