The United States and Russia agreed Wednesday to call for an international investigation of the deadly chemical weapons attack in Syria last week that prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to launch a retaliatory missile strike against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The joint bid for the United Nations and weapons experts to investigate the sarin gas attack that killed more than 85 people and sickened hundreds more came after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met in Moscow for hours of often contentious talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and later with President Vladimir Putin.
Tillerson, the new top U.S. diplomat, told reporters at a news conference that he’d told Putin: «The current state of U.S.-Russia relations is at a low point. There is a low level of trust between our two countries.»
The Kremlin leader, speaking separately to an interviewer from Russian state television, agreed that relations between Washington and Moscow had deteriorated this year.
The immediate dispute between Moscow and Washington involves how the April 4 chemical weapons attack in Syria occurred. Tillerson said the U.S. was «quite confident» that it «was planned and it was directed and executed by Syrian regime forces.» But Lavrov gave no ground on the Russian claim that the sarin gas assault was either a provocation by Syrian rebels or was triggered when Syrian warplanes struck a rebel munitions depot holding sarin gas.
«We have insisted that we have a very thorough investigation,» Lavrov said at the news conference with Tillerson. «We want an honest investigation.»
Russia’s top diplomat said Moscow would not «shield anyone» responsible for the attack.
Tillerson’s trip to Moscow represented the highest-level contact between the U.S. and Russia since Trump took office in January. The world’s two biggest nuclear powers are at odds over multiple issues, including Moscow’s continued support for rebels in eastern Ukraine battling the Kyiv government, and the U.S. intelligence community’s declaration that computer hackers acting on orders from the Kremlin interfered in last year’s U.S. presidential election.
Putin and Tillerson, the former head of the oil giant ExxonMobil, know each other well. The Russian president once gave the then-CEO the Kremlin’s Order of Friendship award, but the climate has cooled considerably since then.
Tillerson said Wednesday that Russian meddling in the U.S. election was a serious problem that had been «fairly well established.»
Lavrov protested that Russia was the victim of «very slanderous attacks,» and added: «I have to say once again … no one has shown us a single fact.»
«Give us the evidence» of Russia’s illicit involvement in U.S. politics, Lavrov said, «and we will respond.»
‘Potential’ for improved relations
The U.S. cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base last week escalated tensions in the Syrian conflict, now in its seventh year, Lavrov said. However, he added that he believed Moscow and Washington have «great potential» to improve their relationship.
U.S. criminal investigators and members of both congressional intelligence committees are studying last year’s Russian hacking into computers at Democratic Party headquarters and the eventual release of emails by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks that were seen as embarrassing Trump’s challenger for the presidency, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The FBI is probing whether Trump’s staff engaged in criminal collusion with Russian officials to boost Trump’s election chances.
Tillerson said, «We need to attempt to put an end to this steady degradation, which is doing nothing to restore the trust between our two countries or to make progress on the issues of the greatest importance to both of us.»
The U.S. envoy said the two countries «have agreed to establish a working group to address smaller issues and make progress towards stabilizing the relationship, so that we can then address the more serious problems. Foreign Minister Lavrov and I agreed we would consider further proposals made about the way forward in Syria, including consulting with our allies and coalition members, and we will continue discussions about how to find a solution to the Syrian conflict.»
Putin wants ‘proof’
Putin discussed the general decline in U.S.-Russian relations with the state television channel Mir before his meeting with Tillerson.
«It can be said that the level of trust at the working level, especially at the military level, has not become better, but most likely has degraded,» Putin said. «Where is the proof that Syrian troops used chemical weapons? There isn’t any. But there was a violation of international law. That is an obvious fact.»
Trump praised Putin as a strong leader during his long campaign for the White House, but on Wednesday he highlighted the Russian president’s role in the Syrian civil war.
«Frankly, Putin is backing a person that’s truly an evil person,» Trump said, referring to Assad. «I think it’s very bad for Russia. I think it’s very bad for mankind.»