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Putin, Tillerson Meet At Kremlin, Discuss Tensions Between Russia And U.S.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says he had a "productive" meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin on Wednesday, despite palpable tension between the U.S. and Russia.

"There is a low level of trust between our two countries," Tillerson said after the meeting. "The world's two foremost nuclear powers cannot cannot have this kind of relationship."

There had been speculation that Putin might snub Tillerson during the secretary of state's Moscow trip. Instead, Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who had met earlier on Wednesday, joined Putin for nearly two hours.

At a news conference after that meeting, Lavrov said the two nations agreed there should be a U.N. investigation into the chemical attack in Syria last week. He also said Putin opened the door to a restoration of a military "deconfliction" hotline between the two countries.

But Tillerson and Lavrov made it clear there were still profound disagreements over recent events in Syria, the future of Syrian president and Russian ally Bashar Assad, and allegations of Russian meddling in the U.S. election, among other issues.

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.

The two countries' top diplomats were seeking to repair a relationship that Putin says has only worsened in recent months. (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.)

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 Assad's government carried out the attack, and it accuses Russia of trying to deflect blame from Assad.

Days after that attack, 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 with Tillerson early Wednesday "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 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 news conference after the Putin meeting, Tillerson reiterated the U.S. position that Assad's regime was responsible for the chemical attack. Lavrov swiftly asserted that Russia was not convinced and called for more investigation.

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

Reporters asked whether Tillerson had introduced evidence at Wednesday's meetings of Russian interference in the U.S. election; Lavrov said Russia had seen no proof for the "slanderous" accusation.

[Source: By Camila Domonoske and Bill Chappell, NPR Oregon Public Broadcasting, 12Apr17]

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