With Tillerson in Moscow, will he meet with Putin?

Jane Onyanga-Omara
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson enter a hall during their meeting in Moscow, Russia, April 12, 2017.
Maxim Shemetov | Reuters

Last week's U.S. missile strike on a Syrian air base in retaliation for an alleged chemical weapons attack must not be repeated, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday, Russian state media reported.

President Trump ordered the strike, citing a chemical attack that killed at least 86 people that the he blamed on the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is a close Russian ally and has depended on Russian military support in a six-year-old civil war.

Tillerson met with Lavrov in Moscow to urge Russia to end its support for Assad. Tillerson is the first Trump administration official to visit Russia, and the meeting likely was tense.

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On Tuesday, top U.S. officials rebuked Russia for either being complicit in the April 4 chemical attack or incompetence for failing to ensure that Assad destroyed all of his chemical weapons in 2013, as Russia promised it would guarantee.

Defense Secretary James Mattis said military intelligence confirmed that the Syrians dropped a lethal nerve gas on a rebel-held town and rejected Russian claims that the chemical was released when Syrian aircraft bombed a rebel lab.

The White House also said there is overwhelming evidence that Syria used a sarin nerve agent and that Russia is trying to help Assad's government cover up the illegal use of chemical weapons.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Putin could meet with Tillerson "if it is decided" that he needs to be briefed on the outcome of the talks.

Peskov said that calls for Russia to distance itself from Assad are "short-sighted" and "absurd," because they disregard the need to fight terrorism and to find a political solution to the crisis in Syria.

Putin said relations with the U.S. have worsened in the first few months of Trump's presidency.

"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," he told state broadcaster Mir TV.

Putin told Mir TV that the U.S. broke international law by striking the air base without providing evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons.

"Most recently, we saw rather alarming steps, when an unlawful attack against Syria was carried out," Lavrov said at the meeting with Tillerson, according to Russian news agency TASS.

"Russia's leadership has already voiced its principal assessments in this respect. We believe it is of principal importance to prevent risks of a repeat of such steps in the future," he added.

Tillerson said the U.S. and Russia had "sharp differences" that he was seeking to "better understand" so they can be narrowed.

"We both have agreed our lines of communication shall always remain open," he said, according to the Associated Press.

Putin has said that Russia will appeal to the United Nations to investigate the chemical attack.

On Tuesday at a G7 summit in Italy, Tillerson said Russia must choose between aligning itself with the U.S. and other Western nations or Assad, Iran and the militant group Hezbollah.

President Trump told Fox Business Network's Mornings with Maria that Putin is "backing a person that's truly an evil person" in his support for Assad. The interview was scheduled to air Wednesday morning.

Russia's foreign ministry said it hoped for constructive talks with Tillerson on the eve of the meetings.

"In the course of the forthcoming talks we would like to realize first and foremost to what extent the United States is aware of the need for stabilization and normalization of bilateral relations," the ministry said in a statement carried by TASS on Tuesday.

Russia is also hoping Tillerson's trip will help it better understand Washington's plans for North Korea, TASS reported.