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Putin, Tillerson Meet At Kremlin, Discuss Tensions Between Russia And U.S.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the start of their meeting in Moscow. Russia has accused the U.S. of breaking international law with its missile strike on Syria last week.
Alexander Nemenov
AFP/Getty Images
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the start of their meeting in Moscow. Russia has accused the U.S. of breaking international law with its missile strike on Syria last week.

Updated at 5:45 p.m. ET

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says he had a "productive" meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin on Wednesday, despite palpable tension between the U.S. and Russia.

"There is a low level of trust between our two countries," Tillerson said after the meeting. "The world's two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship."

There had been speculation that Putin might snub Tillerson during the secretary of state's Moscow trip. Instead, Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who had met earlier on Wednesday, joined Putin for more than two hours.

At a news conference after that meeting, Lavrov said the two nations agreed there should be a U.N. investigation into the chemical attack in Syria last week. He also said Putin opened the door to restoring a military "deconfliction" hotline between the two countries. The two nations agree a 2015 cease-fire in Ukraine should be fulfilled, and are "committed" to finding a way to "avoid confrontation" in North Korea, Lavrov said.

But Tillerson and Lavrov made it clear there were still profound disagreements over recent events in Syria, the future of Syrian president and Russian ally Bashar Assad, and allegations of Russian meddling in the U.S. election, among other issues.

Tillerson's talks in Moscow may seem disappointing considering that the only concrete result is Russia expressing a willingness to return to the so-called "deconfliction" agreement it suspended last week. But NPR's Lucian Kim reports that it's significant that the meeting took place at all.

The Kremlin has been anxious to restart relations with Washington that were largely frozen after the annexation of Crimea three years ago, Lucian notes. After a Syrian ceasefire negotiated by then-Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov fell apart in September, there have been no high-level contacts between the two countries until now.

President Vladimir Putin said in an interview published today that U.S.-Russia relations are even worse than when President Trump took office.

Tillerson, whom Putin awarded the Order of Friendship in 2012, was perhaps best suited for the mission of reestablishing communications. Tillerson formerly led Exxon Mobil's oil operations in Russia, as NPR's Colin Dwyer has reported.

But amid the recent mutual recriminations over Syria, Tillerson demanded that Russia end its support of the Syrian regime following the April 4 chemical weapons attack in the town of Khan Shaykhun. The U.S. says Assad's government carried out the attack, and it accuses Russia of trying to deflect blame from Assad.

Days after that attack, Trump ordered a cruise missile strike that targeted a Syrian air base — a strike that Russia says violated international law. Moscow has accused the U.S. of using the chemical weapons attack as a pretext for hitting the Syrian base with Tomahawk missiles.

Lucian reports that Lavrov went into talks with Tillerson early Wednesday "warning that the U.S. not repeat strikes against Syrian government forces."

"Most recently, we saw rather alarming steps, when an unlawful attack against Syria was carried out," Lavrov said, according to Tass. "Russia's leadership has already voiced its principal assessments in this respect. We believe it is of principal importance to prevent risks of a repeat of such steps in the future."

"The Kremlin argues Assad gave up his chemical weapons stores under a 2013 agreement Moscow brokered with the Obama administration; Tillerson has accused Russia of 'incompetence' in failing to enforce that deal," Charles Maynes reports for NPR from Moscow.

In opening remarks, Tillerson said he was looking forward to "an open, candid, frank exchange" with Lavrov.

"Our meetings today come at an important moment in the relationship," Tillerson said as he and Lavrov faced each other at a long conference table, "so that we can further clarify areas of common objectives, areas of common interests, even when our tactical approaches might be different, and to 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."

Those differences seemed evident when the two top diplomats shook hands to kick off today's session. Making little to no eye contact, Tillerson and Lavrov gripped hands and wore expressions that ranged mainly from grim to flat before a phalanx of photographers.

Things didn't get less tense from there.

At the news conference after the Putin meeting, Tillerson reiterated the U.S. position that Assad's regime was responsible for the chemical attack. Lavrov swiftly asserted that Russia was not convinced and called for more investigation.

(Shortly afterward, Russia cast a veto at the United Nations Security Council, "blocking a Western bid on Wednesday to condemn a deadly gas attack in Syria and push the Syrian government to cooperate with investigators," Reuters reports.)

At the joint press conference, Lavrov also extensively criticized past U.S. foreign policy, from Iraq to Yugoslavia.

Reporters asked whether Tillerson had introduced evidence at Wednesday's meetings of Russian interference in the U.S. election. The U.S. intelligence community has concluded Moscow attempted to influence the election in Trump's favor. Tillerson sidestepped the question, but Lavrov said Russia had seen no proof for the "slanderous" accusation.

Later on Friday, President Trump addressed Tillerson's efforts during a NATO press conference. "I think he had a very successful meeting," Trump said. "We'll see."

"We may be at an all-time low in terms of relationship with Russia," Trump said. "But we're going to see what happens.

"It would be a fantastic thing if we got along with Putin and if we got along with Russia. And that could happen. It may not happen," Trump said. "I can only tell you what I would like to do. I would love to be able to get along with everybody."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.