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Putin And Tillerson Find They Disagree On World Views And Facts

 

By DAVID E. SANGER
Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov, right, and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson at a news conference on Wednesday in Moscow.© Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov, right, and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson at a news conference on Wednesday in Moscow.  

MOSCOW — Vladimir V. Putin kept his guest, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, dangling all day.

It was not clear until around 5 p.m., when the secretary of state’s small motorcade eased out of the Ritz-Carlton in one of the fanciest parts of Moscow and slipped into Red Square that Russia’s president was willing to engage in his first face-to-face meeting with a senior member of President Trump’s administration, even one who is an old business partner who used to show up on behalf of Exxon Mobil.

If a few weeks ago critics of the Trump administration feared that Mr. Tillerson would simply fold on the sanctions imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, they need not have worried. In a two-hour meeting, as later described in sketchy terms by Mr. Tillerson, they did not agree on much — certainly not on who was responsible for fatally poisoning Syrian civilians with the nerve agent sarin, or for the interference in the American elections last year and the European elections underway now.
“We need to attempt to put an end to this steady degradation, which is doing nothing to restore the trust between our two countries or to make progress on the issues of the greatest importance to both of us,” Mr. Tillerson said at a news conference with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov.

Mr. Tillerson went on to describe how the two countries were establishing “a working group to address smaller issues and make progress toward stabilizing the relationship,” a recognition of the fact that the big issues were so big that no working group would have the authority.

Dangling meetings is an old technique for Mr. Putin, used to keep other leaders off balance and demonstrate his control. But when Mr. Putin and Mr. Tillerson did meet, it was clear that they not only have different world views, but that they have different views of the facts. And that made it difficult to achieve anything other than cosmetic accords on the issues over which the two nations, in a revival of Cold War rhetoric, have charged each other with lying about.

For good measure, Mr. Lavrov offered a lengthy tutorial for Mr. Tillerson about all the examples of American-led regime change in the world — from Slobodan Milosevic to Saddam Hussein to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi — that went bad, suggesting it made no sense to add Mr. Assad to the list.

But there was no talk of reviving the “Geneva process,” the meetings of nearly 20 nations that John Kerry, Mr. Tillerson’s predecessor, had organized to help force a political process to end the civil war in Syria and hold a vote that would decide the fate of President Bashar al-Assad. Mr. Tillerson said, again, that Mr. Assad had to go — in a way he did not specify — and when pressed on whether he agreed with Mr. Trump’s description of the Syrian leader as an “animal,” he said that “characterization is one that President Assad has brought upon himself.”

Mr. Tillerson is in many ways the personality opposite of Mr. Kerry: when asked a hard question he will offer the tersest answer possible, rather than attack with words. Asked at the news conference whether he had raised with Mr. Putin the subject of Russian meddling in the 2016 American presidential election, he said, “as to the question of the interference with the election, that is fairly well-established in the United States.”

His answer ignored that such meddling is not a well-established fact in the mind of his boss.

Asked how he explained the difference between Russia’s use of cyber weapons in the election and the American use of them against Iran’s nuclear program and North Korea’s missile program, Mr. Tillerson said simply: “Cyber tools to disrupt weapons programs — that’s another use of the tools, and I make a distinction between those two.”

That was the closest any Trump administration official has come to acknowledging, publicly, the use of cyber weapons against American adversaries.

Mr. Tillerson’s first visit to Moscow as America’s most important diplomat also was striking in what was conspicuously missing: there were no meetings with political dissidents or opponents of Mr. Putin. The subject of crackdowns or human rights in Russia never came up. But the Syria dispute provided plenty of tension.

In the 24 hours before Mr. Tillerson landed in Moscow, the White House accused Mr. Putin’s government of covering up evidence that Mr. Assad had been responsible for the April 4 chemical weapons assault, which the Americans say was launched from a base where Russian troops were operating.

Mr. Putin shot back that the charge was fabricated in ways reminiscent of the run-up to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq.

He quoted two Russian writers, Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov, authors of the 1928 satire “The 12 Chairs,” and said, “‘It’s boring, ladies.’ We have seen this all before.”

But the diplomatic theater playing out in Moscow on a rainy Wednesday morning was far from boring: Mr. Putin, operating on home turf, was looking for any way to shape the narrative of Mr. Tillerson’s trip.

The Kremlin had initially said Mr. Putin would not meet with Mr. Tillerson, although his spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, held out the possibility of a meeting later in the day.

Russian leaders have greeted virtually all new secretaries of state since the end of World War II.

Mr. Tillerson, who was recognized with an Order of Friendship medal by the Russian government while he was the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, has insisted on a tough line on Russia, ruling out any early end to sanctions unless the country returns Crimea to Ukraine and ceases meddling elsewhere.

On Syria, Mr. Tillerson delivered what sounded much like an ultimatum to the Russians on Tuesday while talking to reporters at a Group of 7 meeting in Italy.

“I think it is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end,” Mr. Tillerson said, echoing a theme first heard from Mr. Obama in 2011, when the Arab Spring led many to believe the Syrian leader was about to be overthrown.

Mr. Tillerson essentially demanded that Russia make a choice, severing ties with Mr. Assad and working with the United States on a variety of initiatives in the Middle East.

As Mr. Tillerson entered the Foreign Ministry here to meet Mr. Lavrov, an experienced and wily veteran of many of Russia’s post-Cold War encounters with Washington, the Russian government released another salvo against American intentions here.

The Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria V. Zakharova, said it was “useless” for Mr. Tillerson to arrive in Moscow with “ultimatums” and suggested that if he wanted any progress, he should start by getting Mr. Trump and his administration on the same page about Syria strategy.

(The New York Times)

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