Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shake hands after a joint press conference Wednesday after negotiations in Moscow, Russia, regarding various issues, including Syria and cyber security. Photo by Sergei Chirikov/EPA
April 12 (UPI) -- U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said late Wednesday that his meeting in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin was "productive," but that it also reiterated the existence of a great deal of mistrust between the two countries.
Tillerson met with Putin in the Kremlin with the primary aim of persuading Moscow to abandon its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It marked the first face-to-face meeting between the Russian leader and a top official in President Donald Trump's administration.
"There is a low level of trust between our two countries," Tillerson said after the two-hour summit. "The world's two foremost nuclear powers cannot cannot have this kind of relationship."
"Our meeting today comes at an important moment in the relationship so that we can further clarify areas of common objectives," he added, "so that we can better understand why these differences exist and what the prospects for narrowing those differences may be. ... I look forward to a very open, candid, frank exchange so that we can better define the U.S.-Russia relationship from this point forward."
"I believe that you have come at the right time. Your visit provides an indispensable opportunity to frankly and honestly discuss the outlook for cooperation on these issues," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Tillerson.
Moscow initially said Putin would not meet with Tillerson, but later relented. Prior to the meeting, Lavrov urged Tillerson to prevent more U.S. bombings in Syria.
"We have just had a long, two-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin," Lavrov said. "The talks turned out to be frank and extensive, we covered the entire range of key issues concerning our bilateral relations and cooperation on the global level."
Lavrov said after the meeting that both sides agreed that there should be an investigation into the alleged April 4 sarin gas attack on the northern town of Khan Sheikhoun -- a strike that killed nearly 100 civilians, injured hundreds more and elicited a fierce U.S. retaliatory strike two days later.
Lavrov also warned Tillerson that Trump cannot act in similar military fashion again in the future if he wishes to enhance diplomatic relations between Washington and Moscow, which deteriorated substantially during Barack Obama's presidency.
"We have numerous problems, including those, which were left as action-delayed mines from the [Obama] administration," Lavrov continued. "In order to overcome such obstacles we will need to imply weighty efforts on condition that our U.S. colleagues will meet them."
"We did discuss at length the future role for Assad, whether it be in a future political process or not," Tillerson said. "Our view is the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end. And they, again, have brought this on themselves.
"We do think it's important that Assad's departure is done in an orderly way."
Though Tillerson is working to persuade Moscow to drop support for Assad -- warning during a G7 meeting earlier this week in Italy that Russia risks becoming irrelevant in the Middle East for it -- Lavrov told the State Department chief that he wants to know Trump's real intentions.
Lavrov said both countries should work together and noted that Moscow does "not consider any closed alliances and misalliances productive."
"We now understand each other better. I hope that these contacts will continue," the foreign minister said.
"Russia is ready for that, ready for dialogue with the U.S. in various spheres, and not only for dialogue but also for joint activities in both countries' interest. Of course, we expect the United States to respond in kind."
Moscow, however, on Wednesday vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that condemned the chemical attack and called for Assad's regime to furnish information about its military activities the day it happened. Bolivia also rejected the resolution and China did not vote. Ten nations, including the United States, voted in favor of the measure.
The U.S. missile strikes early Friday were the first known direct attack by the American government on the Syrian regime since the country's civil war began in 2011.
Reactions to Trump's decision to retaliate have varied from supportive to condemning.
The Kremlin, Assad's chief ally, said Syria's airstrike targeted a rebel warehouse in Khan Sheikhoun that contained toxic substances. Moscow also insists that Syria has no chemical weapons -- including sarin, a nerve agent outlawed by international law. Western governments and Syrian monitoring groups, including the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, say the chemical assault harmed civilians.
Russia also accused the United States of firing 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the base to divert attention from Iraq, where a March airstrike by the U.S.-led international coalition killed about 150 civilians in Mosul.
At the G7 meeting, British and U.S. officials were unable to persuade fellow members to adopt new sanctions against Russia for the chemical attack. Moscow officials also said the U.S. attack led them to consider scrapping a "deconfliction" communication agreement with the United States that provided logistical military coordination in Syria.
Wednesday's meeting occurred amid the worst U.S.-Russia diplomatic relations since the end of the Cold War, more than a quarter-century ago. There are presently three open investigations into Russia's reputed interference in November's U.S. presidential election -- two in Congress and one at the U.S. Department of Justice.
Tillerson said punitive sanctions for the alleged meddling -- imposed by Obama against Moscow in December -- were also discussed at Wednesday's meeting.
"It is a serious issue. It's one that we know is serious enough to attract additional sanctions," Tillerson said. "We are mindful of the seriousness of that particular interference."