After a two-hour meeting with President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday in Moscow, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the “current state of U.S.-Russia relations is at a low point.”
Tillerson’s trip was scheduled before Trump approved a cruise-missile strike last week against an airbase of key Russian ally Bashar al-Assad. Trump said in Washington on Wednesday that U.S. officials were still trying to ascertain if Russia, which had forces at the airfield, knew in advance about the sarin attack on the town of Khan Shaykhun.
“There is a low level of trust between our two countries. The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship,” Tillerson said at a press conference with his counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
“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,” he added. “We 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.”
Their meeting came on the same day that Russia used its veto power to block a UN Security Council resolution authored by the U.S., Britain and France to condemn the sarin attack and call on Assad to allow investigators full access.
Lavrov called it “counterproductive to try to adopt a resolution at the UN Security Council which would be not dedicated to investigating the incident, but more legitimizing the accusations against Damascus,” adding that Russia wants to ensure the U.S. has “no intention to interfere within the domestic affairs of Syria.”
Tillerson said the talks included discussion “at length” about “the future role for Assad, whether it be in a future political process or not.”
“Clearly, our view is that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end. And they have again brought this on themselves with their conduct of the war in these past few years,” he said. “We discussed our view that Russia, as their closest ally in the conflict, perhaps has the best means of helping Assad recognize this reality. We do think it’s important that Assad’s departure is done in an orderly way — an orderly way — so that certain interests and constituencies that he represents feel they have been represented at the negotiating table for a political solution.”
“How that occurs, we leave that to the process going forward. We do not think one has to occur before the other can begin. And it will take a pace of its own. But the final outcome in our view does not provide for a role for Assad or for the Assad family in the future governance of Syria. We do not think the international community will accept that. We do not think the world will accept that.”
Tillerson added that “as time goes by, and more and more evidence continues to be gathered, it is possible that the threshold necessary to charge individuals [with war crimes], including Bashar al-Assad, may be achieved.”
Lavrov ribbed his colleague for “certain situations when groups of countries, primarily Western countries, NATO countries, were sort of fixated on eliminating this or that dictator or totalitarian leader.”
“Removing or ousting a particular personality from this scene is not on our agenda,” he added.
Lavrov also said he and Tillerson “agreed to designate special envoys” from the State Department and the Russian Foreign Ministry “to have a pragmatic conversation about the irritants, so to speak, that have piled up in our relationship, under the Obama administration, primarily.”