13 Apr 2017

Moscow greets US Secretary of State with hostility

8:51 am on 13 April 2017

As US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said trust with the US has eroded under Donald Trump.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after a press conference in Moscow.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after a press conference in Moscow. Photo: AFP

Mr Putin made the statement on Wednesday as Moscow delivered an unusually hostile reception to Mr Tillerson in a face-off over Syria.

It comes after the Trump administration fired missiles at a Syrian air base, punishing Moscow's ally for its suspected use of poison gas.

Moscow's hostility to Trump administration figures is a sharp change from last year, when Mr Putin hailed Mr Trump as a strong figure and Russian state television was consistently full of effusive praise for him.

Mr Trump came to the presidency promising to seek closer ties with Russia and greater cooperation fighting against their common enemy in Syria, Islamic State, and Mr Tillerson is a former oil executive who was awarded Russia's Order of Friendship by Mr Putin.

In an interview broadcast on Russian television, Mr Putin doubled down on Russia's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, repeating denials that Mr Assad's government was to blame for the gas attack last week and claiming the attack may have been faked by his enemies.

"One could say that the level of trust on a working level, especially on the military level, has not improved but has rather deteriorated," Mr Putin said.

Mr Tillerson was travelling to Moscow with a joint message from Western powers that Russia should withdraw its support for Assad after a meeting of the G7 industrialized economies also attended by Middle East allies.

He started a meeting with Mr Putin in the Kremlin after speaking with his Russian equivalent Sergei Lavrov for about three hours. The Kremlin had previously declined to confirm Mr Putin would meet with Mr Tillerson, which would have been the first time a US Secretary of State did not meet with the Russian President on his first official visit.

In opening remarks in front of reporters, Mr Lavrov greeted Mr Tillerson with unusually icy remarks, denouncing the missile strike on Syria as illegal and accusing Washington of behaving unpredictably.

"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," he said.

"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."

He also noted that many key State Department posts remained vacant since the new administration took office - a point of sensitivity in Washington.

One of Mr Lavrov's deputies was even more scathing.

"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.

Mr Tillerson kept to more calibrated remarks, saying he looked forward to a "very open, candid, frank exchange" to better define the US-Russian relationship.

The White House has accused Moscow of trying to cover up Assad's use of chemical weapons.

US and Russia in the Syrian war

Washington is leading a campaign of air strikes in Syria against Islamic State fighters and has backed rebels fighting against Assad during a six-year civil war, but until last week the United States had avoided directly targeting the Syrian government.

Russia, meanwhile, intervened in the civil war on Assad's side in 2015 and has troops on the ground, which it says are advising government forces. Both Washington and Moscow say their main enemy is Islamic State, although they back opposing sides in the wider civil war which has killed more than 400,000 people and spawned the world's worst refugee crisis.

Moscow has stood by Assad, saying the poison gas belonged to rebels, an explanation Washington dismisses as beyond credible. Mr 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.

The United States and its European allies imposed financial sanctions on Russia in 2014 after Putin seized territory from neighboring Ukraine.

In an interview with the Fox Business Network, Mr 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.

Mr Trump's relations with Russia are also a domestic issue, as US intelligence agencies have accused Moscow of using computer hacking to intervene in the election to help Trump win. The FBI is investigating whether any Trump campaign figures colluded with Moscow, which the White House denies.

- Reuters

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