Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held a hastily arranged meeting in Moscow late Wednesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin as he worked to ease tensions over Syria and other global crises – even as he and President Trump, from afar, continued to pressure Putin over his alliance with Bashar Assad.
Tillerson, speaking frankly during a press conference in Moscow alongside Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, said he told Putin that U.S.-Russia relations have hit a “low point.” He stressed the need to improve ties.
“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.
Those tensions have mounted since Trump ordered a missile strike last week on an airbase controlled by the Assad government, in response to a chemical weapons attack. But Lavrov said Wednesday that the U.S. and Russia have agreed on the need for a United Nations probe of the Syrian chemical attack, a step that could dial down the rhetoric between the two nations for now.
Washington blames Russia's ally Assad for that attack, while Moscow says Syrian rebels are responsible. That disagreement was on display Wednesday, as Tillerson stood by U.S. claims that the evidence points to Assad – while clarifying the U.S. has no indications of Russian involvement.
Lavrov, speaking through a translator, also said special envoys would be appointed to discuss the “irritants” that have “piled up” mostly under the Obama administration.
Citing the countries’ disagreements, Tillerson said, “We need to attempt to put an end to this steady degradation.”
The news conference came after Putin met the top American diplomat for almost two hours to see if they could rescue relations between the world's mightiest military powers. Russia's alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential election also hovered over the first face-to-face encounter between Putin and a Trump administration Cabinet member.
Both Tillerson and Lavrov cited the goal of defeating ISIS as a common objective.
Lavrov also that Putin could restore a military hotline with the U.S. if Washington focuses on fighting the Islamic State and other extremist groups.
Tillerson, the first Trump Cabinet official to visit Russia, traveled to Moscow just days after the Trump administration launched missile strikes on the airbase in Syria.
Tillerson ratcheted up his rhetoric en route to Moscow earlier this week, saying “the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end” and challenging Russia to reconsider its alliance with the government in Damascus.
Trump also told Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo that Putin is backing “an evil person” in Syria, and it’s “very bad for Russia.”
At the same time, Trump made clear he’s pushing for peace in Syria. He said, “we’re not going into Syria,” but said pressure will be on Russia to ensure peace.
“If Russia didn’t go in and back this animal, you wouldn’t have a problem right now,” he said.
Earlier Wednesday, during a forum at The Newseum in Washington, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked about what could be on the table at a Putin-Tillerson meeting. He spoke to their common interests.
“I think there is a shared interest in defeating ISIS in the region that we have a national security concern that should align with their national security concern," he said.
Spicer had tough words for Russia's alliance with Assad, however.
"Russia right now is an island," he said. "It's Russia, North Korea and Iran ... Russia is among that group the only non-failed state." He said Russia is "isolating" itself by standing by Assad.
Lavrov said Wednesday that Syrians should determine their future, and the objective should not be to “eliminate a political leader from the chessboard.”
The Associated Press and Fox News' Rich Edson contributed to this report.