President Donald Trump declared Wednesday that U.S. relations with Russia "may be at an all-time low." His top diplomat offered a similarly grim assessment from the other side of the globe after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
"Right now we're not getting along with Russia at all," Trump said during a White House news conference. It was stark evidence that the president is moving ever further from his campaign promises to establish better ties with Moscow.
'The level of trust ... has not improved but has rather deteriorated.' — Vladimir Putin, Russia's president
Only weeks ago, it appeared that Trump, who praised Putin throughout the U.S. election campaign, was poised for a potentially historic rapprochement with Russia. But any such expectations have crashed into reality amid the nasty back-and-forth over Syria and U.S. investigations into Russia's alleged interference in the American presidential election.
"It'd be a fantastic thing if we got along with Putin and if we got along with Russia," Trump said. "That could happen, and it may not happen," he said. "It may be just the opposite."
Putin echoed Trump's sentiment Wednesday following his meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, saying trust had eroded between the United States and Russia under Trump.
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"One could say that the level of trust on a working level, especially on the military level, has not improved but has rather deteriorated," Putin said in an interview broadcast on Russian television.
He doubled down on Russia's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, repeating denials that Assad's government was to blame for the gas attack last week and adding a new theory that the attack may have been faked by Assad's enemies.
Tillerson reiterated the U.S. position that Assad must eventually relinquish power in Syria, but appeared to take a slightly softer line with Russia.
"We discussed our view that Russia, as their closest ally in the conflict, perhaps has the best means of helping Assad recognize this reality," he said.
Putin and Tillerson know each other well from Tillerson's days as Exxon Mobil CEO. Putin had even honoured Tillerson with a friendship award.
Earlier Wednesday, Tillerson met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, who greeted him with unusually icy remarks, denouncing the missile strike on Syria as illegal and accusing Washington of behaving unpredictably.
Lavrov said Russia was trying to understand the "real intentions" of the Trump administration. He said Moscow has lots of questions about the "very ambiguous" and "contradictory" ideas emanating from Washington.
"We have seen very alarming actions recently," Lavrov said. "We consider it of utmost importance to prevent the risks of replay of similar action in the future."
One of Lavrov's deputies was even more undiplomatic.
"In general, primitiveness and loutishness are very characteristic of the current rhetoric coming out of Washington," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russia's state-owned RIA news agency.
But Lavrov said some progress had been made on Syria at the meeting and that a working group would be set up to examine the poor state of U.S.-Russia ties. He also said that Putin had agreed to reactivate a U.S.-Russian air safety agreement over Syria, which Moscow suspended after the U.S. missile strikes.
Tillerson noted the low level of trust between the two countries.
"The world's two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship," he said.
Moscow's hostility to Trump administration figures is a sharp change from last year, when Putin hailed Trump as a strong figure and Russian state television was consistently full of effusive praise for him.
The palpable tension hanging over Tillerson's trip spoke to a widening chasm between the former Cold War foes.
"Frankly, Putin is backing a person that's truly an evil person," Trump said in a Fox Business Network interview, referring to Assad. "I think it's very bad for Russia. I think it's very bad for mankind."
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Trump said the U.S. had no plans to become more deeply involved in Syria and only fired the missiles because of last week's deadly chemical weapons attack that killed dozens. Turkey has said tests showed sarin gas was used.
"Are we going to get involved with Syria? No," Trump said in the interview, which aired Wednesday. "But if I see them using gas … we have to do something."
Accusations against Moscow
The White House has accused Moscow of trying to cover up Assad's use of chemical weapons after the attack on a town killed 87 people last week.
Trump responded to the gas attack by firing 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian air base on Friday. Washington warned Moscow, and Russian troops at the base were not hit.
Moscow has stood by Assad, saying the poison gas belonged to rebels, an explanation Washington dismisses as beyond credible. 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.
Russia blocked a Western effort at the UN Security Council on Wednesday to condemn the gas attack and push Assad to co-operate with international inquiries into the incident.
It was the eighth time during Syria's civil war that Moscow has used its veto power on the Security Council to shield Assad's government.