MOSCOW, RUSSIA — Russian president Vladimir Putin met with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson today in an apparent about face.
Putin, who had earlier in the week refused to meet with Tillerson amid tensions over the American strike on Syria, spoke with Tillerson in Moscow for nearly two hours, a U.S. Embassy spokesperson has confirmed.
The meeting comes after harsh words by president Trump toward Russia, who he claims assisted Syria in a deadly chemical strike on Syrian civilians that killed dozens of people.
“If Russia didn’t go in and back this animal (Syrian president Bashar al-Assad), you wouldn’t have a problem right now,” said Trump.
Sources with close knowledge of the meeting said that Tillerson pushed Putin to cooperate with the United States in helping to bring Syria under control. Despite a long standing friendship between Tillerson and Putin, the meeting was described as “tense”.
During the 24 hour period leading up to Tillerson’s landing in Moscow, the White House accused the Russian government of hiding evidence that proved al-Assad was responsible the gassing of his own people, launched from a base where Russian troops are operating.
In a statement, an angry Putin shot back that the charge was fabricated and accused President Trump, who American media claimed had collaborated with Putin to manipulate the outcome of the 2016 election, of fabricating the evidence to create a fake confrontation.
“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,” said Putin, referring to intelligence that Mr. Trump has also cited in recent months. “The exact same thing is happening now,” he argued.
Sean Spicer, when asked about to expect in regard to the meeting between Tillerson and Putin on Wednesday, said Tillerson was expected to focus on the mutual interests of the United States and Russia but that Tillerson would also put Putin on notice that the U.S. will not tolerate further acts of aggression by Russia or their Syrian ally.
“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. “Russia right now is an island. It’s Russia, North Korea and Iran … Russia is among that group the only non-failed state.”
Russia is only “isolating” itself by standing by Assad, he added.
The Kremlin had said earlier in the week that Putin would not meet with Mr. Tillerson upon his arrival, but on Wednesday the Russian leader’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said Putin would “consider” meeting with Tillerson at some point “depending on how Tillerson’s other talks” went.
As a matter of protocol, Russian leaders have greeted virtually all new secretaries of state since the end of World War II, and the initial refusal was considered to be a major snub to U.S. Russian relations and was cited by many political experts as a an effort by Mr. Putin to show Tillerson that just who was in control.
Before heading back behind closed doors, Putin and Tillerson shared a stiff handshake and made no eye contact.
Russia has said that despite U.S. concerns, they will continue to back their Syrian ally and will do “whatever it takes” to ensure that al-Assad has the military backing necessary to thwart off another U.S. attack.