Tillerson’s icy reception over Syria
Trust has eroded between the US and Russia under President Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin has declared, as Moscow delivered an unusually hostile reception to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a face-off over Syria.
Any hope in Russia the Trump administration would herald less confrontational relations has been dashed after the new US leader fired missiles at Syria to punish Moscow’s ally for its suspected use of poison gas.
Just as 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 of the visit.
“One could say that the level of trust on a working level, especially on the military level, has not improved but has rather deteriorated,” Putin said in an interview on Russian television moments after Tillerson sat down with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Putin doubled down on Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, repeating denials that Assad’s government was to blame for last week’s attack and adding a new theory it might have been faked by Assad’s enemies.
Earlier, Lavrov greeted 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,” Lavrov said.
One of 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.
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”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tillerson might meet Putin later on Wednesday.
The White House has accused Moscow of trying to cover up Assad’s use of chemical weapons after the attack on a town killed 87 people last week.
Trump responded to the gas attack by firing 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian air base on Friday.
Moscow has stood by Assad, saying the gas belonged to rebels, which Washington dismisses as beyond credible.
Putin said 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 Assad.
On the Fox Business Network, Trump said he was not planning to order US forces into Syria but he had to respond to the images of dead children poisoned in the gas attack.
Tillerson travelled to Moscow with a joint message from Western powers that Russia should withdraw its support for Assad after a meeting of the Group of Seven.