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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Meets Russia's Putin At The Kremlin


Let's take a close look now at relations between the U.S. and Russia, beginning with a two-hour meeting at the Kremlin. Russian President Vladimir Putin sat down with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Afterwards, Tillerson pointed out the high stakes.


REX TILLERSON: The current state of U.S.-Russia relations is at a low point. There is a low level of trust between our two countries. The world's two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.

SHAPIRO: This comes after days of back and forth between the U.S. and Russia over a chemical attack in Syria and the U.S. military response. Russia backs the Syrian government. NPR's diplomatic correspondent, Michele Kelemen, joins us now in the studio. Hi, Michele.


SHAPIRO: Did you hear anything new from Tillerson tonight in Moscow?

KELEMEN: Well, at least compared to the past few days, it was a little less acrimonious, let's say. Tillerson struck a pretty pragmatic tone, talking about the need to work through the many differences the U.S. has with Russia. And Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, who was at this joint news conference, did his part to appeal to the Trump administration by blaming everything on the Obama administration, constantly saying that's why we're at this point.

The problem is that when it comes to something like Syria, the two sides are where they've been throughout - for this whole conflict. I mean, Tillerson says the reign of Bashar al-Assad's family is coming to an end, and Lavrov complained about what he said was the obsession with toppling dictators. And he pointed to Serbia, Iraq and Libya and says it all ends badly.

SHAPIRO: Yesterday, the White House accused Russia of covering up the chemical weapons attack in Syria. Did Tillerson press that point in Moscow today?

KELEMEN: He was, again, more measured. He said that the U.S. doesn't have any evidence that Russia was complicit in this attack in any way. But he says the U.S. is confident that the attack was planned, directed and executed by Syrian regime forces. Russia denies that and says that this needs to be investigated. But, you know, just today, shortly after the two men spoke about this, Russia vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that called on Syria to hand over flight logs and other evidence to international inspectors. Russian officials argued that the resolution was written in a way that already placed the blame on Syria for the attack. And they've been suggesting that this use of chemical weapons is more of a provocation to justify further U.S. strikes.

SHAPIRO: As you said, the two sides are more or less where they have been for years on this issue. Is there a way ahead for the U.S. and Russia on Syria?

KELEMEN: Well, I'd say the U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, who was in Washington yesterday and up at the U.N. Security Council today, certainly hopes so. He wants to hold a new round of talks in May. And he says this is a time for clear thinking and cooperation. The U.S. and Russia are keys in this. But as for the broader relationship, it's not even clear yet whether President Trump and Putin might meet. You know, we were expecting this to lay the groundwork for that kind of a discussion. Trump says so far that he's heard that Tillerson's meetings went well, maybe better than anticipated, but he's still waiting for a full readout.

SHAPIRO: NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. Thanks a lot.

KELEMEN: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.