Trust between Russia and the US has collapsed under the Trump administration, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated on Wednesday, as Moscow delivered an unusually frigid if not hostile reception to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a face-off over Syria, shortly after Putin said the recent chemical attack was a staged "false flag" and predicted that more are coming, while at the same time the US accused Russia of a gas attack "cover up."
In an interview on Wednesday, Putin said that if Donald Trump had intended to bring about a thaw in US relations with Russia, he has failed to see this intention through.
"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 broadcast on Russian television moments after Tillerson sat down with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in an ornate hall. Putin doubled down on Russia's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, repeating denials that Assad's government was to blame for the gas attack last week and adding a new theory that the attack may have been faked by Assad's enemies.
Moments earlier, Lavrov greeted Tillerson with unusually icy remarks, denouncing the missile strike on Syria as illegal and accusing Washington of behaving unpredictably.
Quoted by Reuters, Lavrod said that "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. And of course, that’s not to mention that apart from the statements, we observed very recently the extremely worrying actions, when an illegal attack against Syria was undertaken."
Lavrov also noted that many key State Department posts remain vacant since the new administration took office - a point of sensitivity in Washington.
Just as Tillerson sat down for talks, a senior Russian official assailed the "primitiveness and loutishness" of U.S. rhetoric, part of a volley of statements that appeared timed to maximize the awkwardness during the first visit by a member of Trump's cabinet.
"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."As a whole, the administration's stance with regards to Syria remains a mystery. Inconsistency is what comes to mind first of all."
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." "I look forward to a very open, candid, frank exchange so that we can better define the U.S.-Russian relationship from this point forward," he told Lavrov.
After journalists were ushered out of the room, Lavrov's spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, wrote on her Facebook page that U.S. journalists traveling with Tillerson had behaved as if they were in a "bazaar" by shouting questions to Lavrov. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tillerson might meet Putin later on Wednesday if the two top diplomats decided it would be useful to brief the Russian president on their talks. But Peskov too did not hold back his criticism, saying calls from Western powers for Russia to cut support for Assad amounted to giving terrorists a free hand.
Moscow's hostility to Trump administration figures is a sharp change from last year, when Putin hailed Trump as a strong figure and Russian state television was consistently full of effusive praise for him. Trump’s repeated claims that he could mend relations between Washington and Moscow has fueled accusations that he secretly colluded with Russia to win the US presidential election last year. His administration is currently under a congressional investigation over alleged ties with Russia.
Some have even gone so far to suggest that Trump's entire Syria operation has been staged - in cooperation with Russia - to deflect attention from his proximity toward Russia, making it appear that he and Putin remain foes. Judging by the complete disappearance of stories involving Trump being manipulated by Russia over the past week, if indeed this was the strategy, it has succeeded.
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Meanwhile, Moscow has has stood by Assad, defying western demands to cut loose with the Syrian leader, saying the poison gas belonged to rebels, an explanation Washington dismisses as beyond credible. Putin said that 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.
Tillerson traveled 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 industrialized economies also attended by Middle East allies.
Overnight, in an interview with the Fox Business Network, Trump said he was not planning to order U.S. forces into Syria, but that he had to respond to the images of dead children poisoned in the gas attack. "We’re not going into Syria," he said in excerpts of the interview on the station's website. "But when I see people using horrible, horrible chemical weapons ... and see these beautiful kids that are dead in their father's arms, or you see kids gasping for life ... when you see that, I immediately called (Defense Secretary) General Mattis."
Putin and Trump are yet to meet face to face to discuss the tensions between Russia and the US. A meeting of the two leaders has not been scheduled so far, even though Moscow has indicated it is willing.