The United States and Russia have cautiously backed efforts to improve ties after talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, though a clear rift remained over a suspected chemical-weapons attack in Syria.
The April 12 meeting in Moscow between Putin and Tillerson -- the highest-level face-to-face talks between the two sides under President Donald Trump’s administration -- came amid heightened tensions over Moscow’s backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Washington accuses Assad's government of carrying out last week's alleged poison-gas attack and responded by targeting a Syrian air base with a barrage of cruise missiles in an operation that incensed Moscow.
Following the meeting with Putin and earlier talks with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Tillerson said that bilateral ties were "at a low point."
"The world's two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship," he said at a news conference alongside Lavrov.
There was no indication that the two sides changed their positions on the issue of Syria, which triggered a spate of mutual rebukes in the run-up to -- and during -- Tillerson's visit.
Tillerson said Assad's government had carried out more than 50 chemical-weapons attacks throughout the war in Syria, and that the Syrian president could face charges of war crimes.
Lavrov, meanwhile, described the U.S. cruise-missile strikes as an "unlawful attack against Syria," and that such actions must be prevented going forward.
He also said Moscow would veto a Western-backed draft UN resolution on the suspected chemical weapons attack, saying it would be "counterproductive to have a UN resolution that would legitimize the accusations against Damascus."
Later on April 12 at the UN Security Council in New York, Russia rejected the draft by the United States, Britain, and France requiring the Syrian government to cooperate with an investigation into the release of poison gas that killed more than 80 civilians in the Idlib Province town of Khan Sheikhoun on April 4.
'Prospects For Joint Work'
Lavrov told the news conference, however, that "despite the quantity of existing problems...there are considerable prospects for joint work."
He added that he and Tillerson had agreed to designation representatives on each side specifically tasked with addressing "irritants" in bilateral relations.
Tillerson said the two countries had agreed to set up a "working group" to coordinate on "smaller issues." Such collaboration, he said, could help the two sides later address "more serious problems."
The ongoing standoff over Syria, however, has cast further doubts on prospects for the kind of detente that Trump advocated during his presidential campaign -- rhetoric that the Kremlin had greeted with cautious optimism following his election in November.
Tillerson's visit coincided with a dim assessment of bilateral ties by Putin, who lashed out at Washington and said that trust had eroded since Trump took office.
Trump, meanwhile, criticized Putin in a television interview broadcast the same day for backing Assad, whom the U.S. president described as an "evil person" and "an animal."
Western pressure for Russia to drop Assad had increased ahead of the visit by Tillerson, who suggested on April 11 that Russia should "realign with the United States" and other Western and Middle Eastern countries "seeking to resolve the Syrian crisis."
Sitting down with Tillerson ahead of their meeting, Lavrov said the United States should not offer Russia what he called the false choice of being with Washington and the West or against it.
Kremlin spokesman Peskov said that calls for Russia to stop supporting Assad seemed "shortsighted" and "absurd," suggesting that doing so would "play into the hands of terrorists."
And in an interview posted on the Kremlin website around the time Tillerson and Lavrov began their meeting, Putin delivered a sharp rebuke of the United States over Syria.
Putin stuck by Russia's assertion -- already rejected by U.S. officials -- that Assad's government was not responsible for the release of poison gas that killed more than 80 civilians in the Idlib Province town of Khan Sheikhoun on April 4.
He said Russia believes the two most credible theories are that gas was released when Syrian government air strikes hit a rebel chemical-weapons production facility or that the attack was "simply staged."
Trump said in an interview with Fox Business Network broadcast on April 12 that in backing Assad, Putin is helping "truly an evil person, and I think it's very bad for Russia."
"I think it's very bad for mankind. It's very bad for this world,” Trump said. “But when you drop gas or bombs or barrel bombs -- they have these massive barrels with dynamite and they drop them right in the middle of a group of people -- and in all fairness, you see the same kids -- no arms, no legs, no face."
Referring to Assad, Trump added, "This is an animal."
Many Russian officials had voiced high expectations that badly strained ties with Washington would be mended under Trump, who said repeatedly that he hoped relations would improve. But Putin suggested that they have worsened instead.
"One can say that that the level of trust on the working level, particularly on the military level...has not improved but most likely deteriorated," Putin said in the interview, which the Kremlin said was taped on April 11.
Despite Trump's praise of Putin and the calls for closer cooperation that he made during the campaign, his administration has shown no clear signs of easing policies enacted by his predecessor, Barack Obama, aimed at pressuring and isolating the Kremlin.
Trump escalated Washington's standoff with Russia last week by ordering the cruise-missile strikes against the Syrian air base.
The U.S. operation incensed Moscow, Assad’s main backer in the six-year-old civil war in Syria, which called the missile strikes a violation of international law.
"It is clear to us the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end," Tillerson said before leaving Italy for Moscow on April 11. "We hope that the Russian government concludes that they have aligned themselves with an unreliable partner in Bashar al-Assad."
In his first public comments on Syria since the U.S. missile strikes, Putin told reporters on the day of Tillerson’s arrival that Moscow would appeal to a UN agency in The Hague to conduct an investigation into the chemical-weapons deaths.
The United States and other Western governments have rejected assertions by Moscow and Damascus that the deadly gas was released in Khan Sheikhoun when government air strikes hit rebel-controlled chemical weapons.
"I have personally reviewed the intelligence, and there is no doubt the Syrian regime is responsible for the decision to attack and for the attack itself," U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on April 11. He said there was no proof of Russian involvement.
"It was very clear that the Assad regime planned it, orchestrated it, and executed it, and beyond that we can't say right now," he said.
Mattis warned that if Syria uses chemical weapons again, it will "pay a very, very stiff price."
Just before Tillerson and Lavrov begain their talks, Russian news agencies released remarks in which Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the Trump administration's policy in Syria was "a mystery to us."
Ryabkov said that "all issues related to the situation in Syria" would be discussed.
While the Kremlin greeted Trump's stunning victory in November with cautious optimism, the new U.S. administration so far has maintained key Russia policies enacted by Obama, including sanctions over the Kremlin's 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and its backing of armed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
It has also issued critical statements about Russia’s record on human rights and political freedoms, including a recent politically tinged conviction of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, and reports of alleged brutal violence against gay men in Russia’s southern Chechnya region.
And on the day Tillerson arrived in Moscow, Trump formally signed off on Montenegro's accession to NATO, the Western military alliance whose usefulness the U.S. president had previously questioned and whose expansion has long angered Russia.
Trump has faced mounting domestic pressure as well amid the ongoing fallout over Russia’s alleged meddling in last year’s presidential election. U.S. intelligence says the Kremlin directed a hacking-and-propaganda campaign that ultimately aimed to help Trump defeat his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, a charge Moscow denies.
The FBI and several U.S. Senate committees are now investigating Russia’s role in the election as well as contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials.
Both Democratic and Republican members of Congress have expressed concerns over Trump’s stated desire to improve ties with Russia.
Lavrov told Tillerson during the public part of their April 12 meeting that "it is very important for us to understand your position, the stance of the United States -- the real intentions of your administration. We hope that we will advance down that path today."
On Syria, the Trump administration has offered mixed messages on U.S. policy.
Trump's ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said over the weekend that regime change was a priority for Trump in Syria, while Tillerson has said that defeating Islamic State militants in Syria is the first priority.
Mattis echoed that on April 11, saying, "The military campaign is focused on...breaking ISIS, defeating ISIS in Syria."
"The campaign stays on track exactly as it was before Assad's violation," he said.
In a further sign of the heightened tensions, Russia on April 12 denounced as "unacceptable" a draft UN resolution proposed by the United States, France, and Britain on the suspected chemical attack.
The resolution demands cooperation from Damascus on an investigation into the alleged gas attack. Moscow vowed to veto the measure in its current from in a vote expected later in the day.
Speaking at the UN Security Council, Haley told Russia on April 12, "You are isolating yourselves from the international community every time one of Assad's planes drop another barrel bomb on civilians and every time Assad tries to starve another community to death."
"We are ready to throw our weight and resources behind diplomacy" to help bring the civil war in Syria to an end, Haley added.