Russia’s top officials didn’t pull any punches as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson completed his visit to Moscow Wednesday, the first by any member of U.S. President Donald Trump’s cabinet.
The round of meetings between Tillerson, his counterpart Sergei Lavrov and Russian President Vladimir Putin was accompanied by acerbic statements from Russia castigating the new administration’s inconsistency and “primitiveness” on a range of issues, with the question of Syria at the forefront.
“We could say that at the working level, the degree of trust has dropped, especially in the military area,” Putin said in an interview published on his official website early Wednesday. “It has not improved and has probably worsened.”
Moscow’s open hostility to Trump’s envoy marks a sharp change from the months leading up to and following the billionaire’s election, when Russian officials and media personalities favored the billionaire and former real estate mogul as a figure who could possibly usher in a period of detente between the former Cold War foes. Trump frequently praised Russia’s Syria campaign and Putin’s tough style during his election campaign.
Even Tillerson, a former recipient of Russia’s Order of Friendship award, found it difficult to claim success in his debut appearance at the Kremlin as state secretary, noting in a press conference how relations are “at a low point, there is a low level of trust between our two countries.”
The meeting came after a week of tit-for-tat accusations following the U.S. attack on Syria. While the U.S. has accused Russia of taking part in a “cover-up” of an alleged Syrian military deployment of sarin nerve gas, Russian president Putin has branded the incident a “false flag” incident carried out by extremist rebels with the intention of framing Syrian authorities.
The lack of progress was clear in an awkward Wednesday press conference held by the top diplomats following the talks. Speaking to the press, Tillerson repeated his attempts to justify the U.S. cruise missile attack while noting alleged Russian interference in U.S. elections, remarks that elicited a barbed comment by Lavrov which highlighted the U.S.’s inability to produce solid evidence to back the claims.
Signs that U.S.-Russia relations are on the rocks were underscored by Lavrov’s remarks to reporters during an official greeting ceremony for Tillerson, where the Russian foreign minister expressed barely-disguised scorn toward last Thursday’s U.S. cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base as illegal while lambasting Washington’s unpredictable behavior.
“Frankly, (U.S. statements) have provoked many questions, considering Washington’s confusing and sometimes openly contradictory ideas on the entire range of bilateral and international issues,” Lavrov said.
While Tillerson made the rounds in the Russian capital, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov shredded the White House in far less diplomatic terms.
“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,” Ryabkov told RIA news agency.
“As a whole, the administration’s stance with regards to Syria remains a mystery. Inconsistency is what comes to mind first of all.”
Washington’s inconsistency has been on full display throughout the week, as Trump’s famously tongue-tied Press Secretary Sean Spicer appeared to make threats Monday to attack Syria if the Assad government decides once again to “put a barrel bomb into innocent people,” a reference to oil drums packed with explosives and shrapnel. Spicer confirmed multiple times that use of the crude conventional weapon could provoke a military response from the U.S. before eventually conceding that he misspoke.
An interview with the U.S. president published Tuesday by the New York Post did precious little to clear the confusion, signaling a potential climbdown from Washington’s belligerent regime change stance.
“We’re not going into Syria,” Trump said. “Our policy is the same; it hasn’t changed. We’re not going into Syria.”
Putin did not fail to notice the “unchanging” policy of Washington’s regime change approach to thorny issues in the Middle East, comparing the Trump administration’s recklessness to ex-President George W. Bush’s catastrophic toppling of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
“This reminds me very much of the events of 2003, when U.S. representatives in the Security Council showed alleged chemical weapons discovered in Iraq,” the Russian president remarked Tuesday. “The exact same thing is happening now, and their partners are nodding approvingly.”
“’It’s boring, ladies,’” Putin added, quoting a popular Russian satirical novel. “We have seen this all before.”