President also says Nato is ‘no longer obsolete’ following his secretary of state’s visit to Moscow
Donald Trump has said that US relations with Russia may be at “an all-time low” and declared a new-found faith in Nato, suggesting the alliance was “no longer obsolete.”
The US president’s remarks at the White House followed a two-hour meeting in Moscow between his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and Vladimir Putin, which failed to resolve any of the deep differences between the two nations on Syria, Ukraine, or Moscow’s interference in the 2016 US election.
“We’re not getting along with Russia at all,” Trump said, adding “we may be at an all time low”. He avoided any direct criticism of Putin, but compared the relationship with Russia unfavourably to the one he had cultivated with China since the visit of Xi Jinping last week.
Russia, Trump noted, had vetoed a US-backed resolution on Syria at the UN security council while China had abstained, adding that he was “not surprised” by Beijing’s stance – implying he had negotiated it with Xi.
In the latest of a series of dramatic foreign policy reversals in recent days, Trump dropped an allegation he had repeated throughout his presidential campaign, telling the Wall Street Journal that the Chinese were “not currency manipulators”.
The president’s comments confirmed a significant shift in his positions since taking office nearly three months ago, cooling towards Russia and reaffirming support for Nato.
A day after approving Nato’s latest expansion with the accession of Montenegro, a source of fury in Moscow, Trump used a joint appearance with the alliance’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, to distance himself from his past denigration of Nato, while claiming credit for improving its performance.
“I complained about that a long time ago and they made a change, and now they do fight terrorism,” the president said. “I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.”
Tillerson’s two-hour audience with Putin in the Kremlin led to the removal of the most immediate threat of escalation, as Putin “reaffirmed” the maintenance of a hotline between the two countries’ militaries to avoid midair collisions between their aircraft operating in Syrian airspace.
America’s top diplomat said the two countries had agreed to create a working group to find solutions to “smaller problems” so that they could then concentrate on bigger issues.
But as he sat alongside his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, at a press conference, it was clear that fundamental differences between the US and Russia on Syria and beyond remained very much in place.
“I expressed the view that the current state of US-Russian relations is at a low point,” Tillerson said. “The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.”
Tillerson stuck to the Trump administration insistence that a chemical weapons attack that killed more than 80 people last week in Syria was the work of Bashar al-Assad, and that the Syrian president could play no part in the country’s long-term future.
“The perspective from the US is supported by facts we have that are conclusive that the chemical attack was planned and directed and executed by Syrian regime forces,” Tillerson said, adding that the “reign of the Assad family is coming to an end” and “Russia perhaps has the best means of helping the Assad regime recognise this reality”.
Russia later vetoed a UN security resolution put forward by the US, the UK and France calling for chemical weapons inspectors to be allowed to investigate chemical weapons attacks and for the Syrian regime to hand over air force flight logs and other operational details from 4 April, the day of the Khan Sheikhunattack. It was Russia’s eighth veto on a resolution putting pressure on the Assad regime. China abstained, while 10 council members voted for it.
On Ukraine, Tillerson said US sanctions on Russia for its military intervention there would stay in place, and on Russian interference in the US presidential election, he said Moscow’s role was “well established”.
Lavrov disagreed with him on every point. As to Syria’s political future, Lavrov said Russia was not “making a bet on one person or another, including Assad”, but said the “fate of Syria should be decided by Syrians themselves”.
Lavrov went on to say the US and its allies had failed to learn from the past and still clung to their ambitions to topple leaders they saw as dictators, a policy that had led to disaster elsewhere.
“We’ve already gone through such experiments based on the need to overthrow some dictator or authoritarian leader,” he said. “I don’t know of any positive examples of removing a dictator.”
Tillerson was the first member of the Trump administration to meet Putin. The meeting followed a day of public uncertainty over whether it would take place, although US officials had been confident that it would eventually happen.
Putin’s spokesman had previously been coy about whether the president would even speak with Tillerson, saying no such meeting was on his schedule. Putin waited until after the talks with Lavrov to invite Tillerson to the Kremlin.
The two men had friendly ties when Tillerson was in his previous job as head of the ExxonMobil oil company and Putin had bestowed the Russian Order of Friendship on the Texan.
Unusually for the Russian president, he did not keep Tillerson waiting at the Kremlin before starting the meeting, which lasted two hours.
Asked about allegations of Russian hacking during the US election, Tillerson suggested additional sanctions on Moscow could be adopted only if Russia interfered again in the future. “That is a fairly well-established, serious issue, it’s one we know is serious enough to attract additional sanctions,” he said. “We are mindful of it in the future and Russia I think is mindful of it.”
The Kremlin talks took place at a point where US-Russian relations appeared to have hit a crisis over Syria, following the chemical weapons attack, which the US said was carried out by the Assad regime using sarin nerve agent, and a punitive US missile strike on a Syrian air force base three days later.
A former US official involved in relations with Russia over Syria said Russia had overstated its public outrage over the US missile strike, which it may well have welcomed as a way of restraining Assad, over whom Moscow has limited control.
“How are they going to stop him [using chemical weapons]? You would have to be ready to walk away,” the former official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“If Putin walks away, how does he justify the casualties Russia has suffered if you’re not on the side of the angels, fighting terrorists. It’s hard enough in a democracy to admit you were wrong. Once you are in and your reputation is tied up with your client, then the client, Assad, has leverage over Putin.”
As Tillerson was meeting Putin and Lavrov in Moscow, representatives of the two countries exchanged slights at the UN security council before Russia wielded its veto.
“To my colleagues from Russia – you are isolating yourselves from the international community every time one of Assad’s planes drop another barrel bomb on civilians and every time Assad tries to starve another community to death,” the US envoy, Nikki Haley, said.
“It is long past time for Russia to stop covering for Assad … and to push for peace.”
The Russian deputy envoy to the UN, Vladimir Safronkov, called the US salvo of 59 cruise missiles which hit the regime base in Shayrat a “provocation” which would only provide encouragement to those seeking a military solution to the conflict.
Even in the bearpit of the security council, however, the US and Russian envoys pulled their punches, compared with the raw exchanges of recent days.
Haley focused most of her comments at Iran, which she called “Assad’s chief accomplice”. Safronkov reserved his fiercest disdain for the UK envoy, Matthew Rycroft, who had said that UK scientists had determined that sarin had been used in the Khan Sheikhun attack and called on Russia to cut ties with Assad, who Rycroft said was bringing Moscow only “shame and humiliation”.
In a remarkable confrontation in the council chamber, Safronkov rounded on Rycroft. “You’re scared,” he yelled at the British envoy. “Your dream has slipped away, because we’re going to work with the United States. You’re afraid of this. You’re doing everything you can to sabotage this teamwork … Look at me! Don’t turn your eyes away! Why are you looking away?”
He accused Rycroft of behaving “irresponsibly, offensively, and obscenely” before concluding: “Don’t you dare insult Russia again!”