The presidents of the United States and Russia on Wednesday both presented souring views of the relationship between their two countries, exchanging sharp words as Moscow extended an icy welcome to the United States' top diplomat in a face-off over Syria.
In Washington, President Donald Trump said the United States' relationship with Moscow "may be at an all-time low."
Trump's comments came after he made his biggest foreign policy decision of his new presidency last week, firing missiles at Syria to punish Moscow's ally for its suspected use of poison gas. Russia condemned the U.S. action.
(For graphic on battle for control in Syria click here: tmsnrt.rs/2nm68H0)
Hours earlier on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin was equally pessimistic, saying in an interview broadcast on Russian television, "The level of trust on a working level, especially on the military level, has not improved but has rather deteriorated."
The rhetorical salvos came as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson received an unusually hostile reception in Moscow, where any hope that the Trump administration would herald less confrontational relations was dashed in the week after the U.S. missile strike on Syria.
Tillerson met Putin in the Kremlin after talking to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, for about three hours. The Kremlin had previously declined to confirm Putin would meet Tillerson, reflecting the renewed tensions.
Trump had frequently called during the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign for warmer ties with Putin, despite criticism from lawmakers in his own Republican Party.
But the civil war in Syria has driven a wedge between Moscow and Washington, upending what many in Russia hoped would be a transformation in relations, which reached a post-Cold War low under Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama.
As Tillerson sat down for talks with Lavrov on Wednesday, a volley of statements, including from a senior Russian official, appeared timed to maximize the awkwardness during the first visit to Moscow by a member of Trump's cabinet.
Lavrov doubled down on Russia's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, repeating denials that Assad's government was to blame for the gas attack last week and adding a new theory that the attack may have been faked by Assad's enemies.
Tillerson reiterated the U.S. position that Assad must eventually relinquish power in Syria.
"We discussed our view that Russia as their closest ally in the conflict perhaps has the best means of helping Assad recognize this reality," he said.
Asked whether Assad could be subject to war crimes charges, Tillerson said people were working to make such a case, though he cautioned doing so would require clearing a high legal hurdle.(Source: Reuters)