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Putin Receives Tillerson At Kremlin As Russia Warns U.S. Not To Strike Syria Again

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the start of their meeting in Moscow. Russia has accused the U.S. of breaking international law with its missile strike on Syria last week.
Alexander Nemenov AFP/Getty Images
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the start of their meeting in Moscow. Russia has accused the U.S. of breaking international law with its missile strike on Syria last week.

Updated at 2:45 p.m. ET

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the Kremlin Wednesday, ending speculation over a potential snub. The meeting in Moscow came as Russia and the U.S. have traded accusations over their involvement in Syria, Russia's ally that was recently hit by an American missile strike.

Tillerson talked with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov earlier on Wednesday, before the two men joined Putin for the meeting. Afterward, Tillerson and Lavrov spoke to the press about the day's conversations.

They announced that Russia and the U.S. have now agreed that there should be an investigation into events in Syria, and, Lavrov says Putin opened the door to a restoration of a military hotline between the two countries.

Tillerson said the meeting with Putin had been "productive."

"There is a low level of trust between our two countries," Tillerson said, sitting beside Lavrov at a joint press conference. "The world's two foremost nuclear powers cannot cannot have this kind of relationship."

Earlier Wednesday, the Interfax news agency quoted Putin as saying that the relationship between Russia and the U.S. has deteriorated rather than improved under President Trump's administration.

It was not the first meeting for Putin and Tillerson, a former oil executive who led Exxon Mobil's operations in Russia and received the Order of Friendship from Putin, as NPR's Colin Dwyer has reported for the Two-Way.

In addition to Syria, the talks between U.S. and Russia were expected to center on North Korea, as the countries' top diplomats try to repair a relationship that Putin says has only worsened in recent months.

Tillerson has demanded that Russia end its support of the Syrian regime following the April 4 chemical weapons attack in the town of Khan Shaykhun. The U.S. says Syrian President Bashar Assad's government carried out the attack, and it accuses Russia of trying to deflect blame from Assad.

Days after that attack, President Trump ordered a cruise missile strike that targeted a Syrian air base — a strike that Russia says violated international law. Moscow has accused the U.S. of using the chemical weapons attack as a pretext for hitting the Syrian base with Tomahawk missiles.

NPR's Lucian Kim reports that Lavrov went into talks "warning that the U.S. not repeat strikes against Syrian government forces."

"Most recently, we saw rather alarming steps, when an unlawful attack against Syria was carried out," Lavrov said, according to Tass. "Russia's leadership has already voiced its principal assessments in this respect. We believe it is of principal importance to prevent risks of a repeat of such steps in the future."

"The Kremlin argues Assad gave up his chemical weapons stores under a 2013 agreement Moscow brokered with the Obama administration; Tillerson has accused Russia of 'incompetence' in failing to enforce that deal," Charles Maynes reports for NPR from Moscow.

In his opening remarks, Tillerson said he was looking forward to "an open, candid, frank exchange" with Lavrov.

"Our meetings today come at an important moment in the relationship," Tillerson said as he and Lavrov faced each other at a long conference table, "so that we can further clarify areas of common objectives, areas of common interests, even when our tactical approaches might be different, and to clarify areas of sharp difference, so that we can better understand why these differences exist, and what the prospects for narrowing those differences may be."

Those differences seemed evident when the two top diplomats shook hands to kick off today's session. Making little to no eye contact, Tillerson and Lavrov gripped hands and wore expressions that ranged mainly from grim to flat before a phalanx of photographers.

Things didn't get less tense from there. At the press conference after the meeting, Tillerson said the Assad regime was responsible for the chemical attack, and Lavrov swiftly asserted that Russia was not convinced and called for more investigation.

Lavrov also extensively criticized U.S. foreign policy in the past, from Iraq to Yugoslavia.

Reporters asked whether Tillerson had introduced evidence of Russian interference into the U.S. election during either meeting; Lavrov said Russia had seen no proof for the "slanderous" accusation.

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