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Tillerson says Russia ties at ‘low point’ after talks with Putin

Alexander Nevenov, AFP | Prior to meeting Vladimir Putin, Rex Tillerson (pictured left) held tense talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov (right).

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said relations with Russia were “at a low level of trust” and must improve after holding talks on the Syrian crisis with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Wednesday.

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His comments were echoed by President Donald Trump, who admitted that relations with Russia "may be at an all-time low" in stark evidence that the president is having difficulty delivering on his campaign promise to establish better ties with Moscow.

Tillerson’s Kremlin visit came as the two countries traded sharp accusations over the chemical weapons attack in Syria on April 4 that the US said led it to launch 59 retaliatory cruise missiles three days later at Shayrat Air Base in Homs, believed by US intelligence to be the source of the attack.

Tillerson reiterated the US position that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must eventually relinquish power in Syria, which is starkly at odds with Russia's position.

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

'Low level of trust between our two countries'

The meeting between the US secretary of state and Putin was steeped in geopolitical intrigue, with neither country saying ahead of time if it would take place or not.

It followed tense talks between Tillerson and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, who accused President Donald Trump’s administration of carrying out an unlawful attack against Assad's forces.

Giving Tillerson a chilly reception, Lavrov said Russia was trying to understand the "real intentions" of the Trump administration, which he accused of being “very ambiguous” and “contradictory” on the Syrian dossier.

After the talks, Russia’s top diplomat said there were “considerable prospects for joint work” between the two countries, most notably in the fight against terrorism.

He said Moscow was ready to resume a deal with Washington to avoid incidents in Syrian airspace as the two countries lead separate bombing campaigns.

'Russia is open to dialogue'

"Today the president confirmed our readiness to return to its implementation on the understanding that the original aims of the air forces of the American coalition are reaffirmed, namely the fight against IS [the Islamic State group] and al-Nusra," Lavrov said, referring to the former al Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

The deal between Moscow and Washington was suspended after the US missile strikes ordered by Trump in response to the suspected chemical attack.

Assad ‘a truly evil person’

Trump, meanwhile, told a White House news conference later Wednesday that while he was still hopeful of improved ties with Putin, "right now we're not getting along with Russia at all".

"It'd be a fantastic thing if we got along with Putin and if we got along with Russia," Trump said.

"That could happen, and it may not happen. It may be just the opposite."

The palpable tension hanging over Tillerson's trip highlighted a widening chasm between the former Cold War foes.

Only weeks ago, it appeared that Trump, who lavishly praised Putin throughout the campaign, was poised for a potentially historic rapprochement with Russia. But expectations of an easy rapport have crashed over Syria.

"Frankly, Putin is backing a person that's truly an evil person," Trump said in an interview with Fox Business News that aired Wednesday, referring to Assad. "I think it's very bad for Russia. I think it's very bad for mankind."

Of Assad, Trump added: "This is an animal."

However, he said the US had no plans to become more deeply involved in Syria, saying he only struck Assad because of last week’s deadly chemical attack.

"Are we going to get involved with Syria? No. But if I see them using gas...we have to do something."

Meanwhile, Putin – who has been accused of interfering in the US presidential election won by Trump – said relations with the US had only gone downhill since Trump took office in January.

"The level of trust at the working level, especially at the military level, has not become better but most likely has degraded," Putin said in an interview broadcast Wednesday by state television channel Mir.

Moscow has strenuously objected to Trump's decision to launch 59 US Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base that Washington says was used to pummel civilians with nerve gas, resulting in 87 deaths.

Russia, Assad's staunchest ally, has insisted that Assad is blameless and that it was actually the rebels responsible for the disbursed chemical weapons – a claim rejected by Western intelligence agencies.

The health minister in Turkey, which treated many of the attack's victims and conducted autopsies on others, said Tuesday that test results conducted on victims confirmed sarin gas was used.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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