Tillerson Meets with Putin Amid Tensions Over Syria

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Russian president Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin Wednesday, along with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

The previously unscheduled, high-level meeting with Putin — the first for any senior Trump administration official with the Russian leader — comes amid heightened tension over U.S. airstrikes in Syria that targeted the regime of Russian ally Bashar al-Assad, after a sarin gas attack on the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun last week.

Earlier in the day, Tillerson was met with a stern scolding by Lavrov, as the two leaders convened for what was planned to be a full day of meetings in Moscow. Putin was not originally scheduled to join the meetings, but asked Tillerson and Lavrov to come to the Kremlin in the evening, after the two delegations had extensive meetings.

Lavrov criticized the U.S. for airstrikes on the government of Assad, warned that similar action was unacceptable to Russia, and chided the Trump administration for an inconsistent foreign policy and vacant positions at the State Department.

“I will be frank that we have a lot of questions regarding very ambiguous, as well as contradictory, ideas on a whole plethora of bilateral and international agenda coming from Washington,” he said through a translator.

“We have seen just recent highly alarming actions, when there was the unlawful attack against Syria,” he added. “We believe it fundamentally important not to let these actions happen again in the future.”

But Lavrov nonetheless expressed a desire to work with the U.S., especially on counter-terrorism issues — in which the Trump administration has also declared an interest.

“I believe that your visit is quite timely. I believe that it gives us necessary opportunity, as it was discussed by President Trump and President Putin, to have an honest and frank discussion to clear the outlook for the future of our cooperation, first and foremost on the wide anti-terrorist front,” Lavrov said.

For his part, Tillerson offered a more diplomatic hand and shared the sentiment that the meetings were an important step for each side to spell out their positions and understand the scope of their differences.

“Our meetings today come at an important moment in the relationship so that we can further clarify areas of common objectives, areas of common interest,” he said, “even when our tactical approaches may be different, and 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.”

“As we both have agreed, our lines of communication shall always remain open,” Tillerson added.

The meeting comes amid a fresh war of words over who is responsible for last week’s chemical weapons attack in Syria.

Before he arrived in Moscow, Tillerson blamed Russia for being either “incompetent” or “complicit” in the attack, while the White House on Tuesday accused Russia of trying to cover up the Assad’s responsibility.

The Russians have responded with their own harsh rhetoric, with President Vladimir Putin comparing the accusations from Washington to its claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before invading in 2003 and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warning the U.S. is “on the brink of military conflict with Russia.”

Behind closed doors, however, Tillerson, Lavrov, and their delegations may now be speaking frankly about critical issues — not just the conflict in Syria and Assad’s future, but also on counter-terrorsm strategy, the threat of North Korea‚Äôs nuclear program, and the conflict in Ukraine. Meetings are expected to last all day, and the two leaders will speak again in the evening at a joint press conference.