Trump and Putin.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – Three months into his tenure, an American president who campaigned on forging better relations with Russia and whose associates are currently under investigation for their ties to the government there has found himself embroiled in a diplomatic crisis with Moscow.
US President Donald Trump on Wednesday dispatched Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Moscow in an attempt to calm relations and dislodge Russian leadership from its alliance with Bashar Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the government in Iran – calling them “evil” actors on the world stage from which Russia should disassociate.
The president offered his harshest words yet on the Russian government, asking why it would shield a leader who presided over the brutal killing of more 500,000 of his own people by all manner of weaponry, including toxic chemicals.
“Putin is backing a person that’s truly an evil person,” Trump said in an interview with Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartolemo that aired on Wednesday. “I think it’s very bad for Russia. I think it’s very bad for mankind. It’s very bad for this world.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin, weighing in ahead of Tillerson’s arrival, said relations with Washington had quickly deteriorated under the young Trump administration over recent events in Syria. He defiantly pushed back against US efforts to cast Moscow as being allied with despots. A senior Russian Foreign Ministry official accused Washington of “primitiveness,” “loutishness” and “inconsistency.” “One could say that the level of trust on a working level, especially on the military level, has not improved but has rather deteriorated,” Putin told local media.
On Tuesday, the Trump administration openly accused Russia of knowing before the April 4 attack of Assad’s plan to use chemical weapons against civilians, an action that ultimately killed 74 people and wounded hundreds in Idlib province. That led Trump to strike back at Assad on Thursday – the first US strike against the embattled Syrian president since the start of an uprising against him in 2011. A resolution before the UN Security Council on Wednesday that would have required Assad participate with those investigating the attack vetoed by Moscow, as Tillerson was meeting with Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
“I believe you have come at the right time,” Lavrov said in welcoming Tillerson. The greeting was far from warm, as Lavrov excoriated “Washington’s confusing and sometimes openly contradictory ideas on the entire range of bilateral and international issues.” Tillerson offered remarks more muted than Lavrov’s before his meeting with Putin – an event that was nearly scrapped, reflecting just how quickly relations have worsened. The secretary of state left the sharper rhetoric to Trump and his envoy to the UN, Nikki Haley, who lambasted Russia for its purported culpability in the April 4 attack.
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“To my colleagues from Russia: You are isolating yourselves from the international community every time one of Assad’s planes drops another barrel bomb on civilians and every time Assad tries to starve another community to death,” she said.
Britain’s UN envoy was harsher still.
“Russia’s initiative in 2013 to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons has been exposed as a shambles. Russian pride in the Astana Process has been turned to humiliation,” said British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft. “Russia’s credibility and reputation across the world have been poisoned by its toxic association with Assad. They have chosen to side with a murderous, barbaric criminal, rather than with their international peers. They have chosen the wrong side of history.”
Moscow’s deputy UN envoy Vladimir Safronkov pushed back, accusing Rycroft of “insulting Russia.” Moscow maintains that Assad gave up his entire chemical stockpile in 2013 after a sarin gas attack against civilians in Ghouta killed 1,400 people.
During the heated Security Council meeting, Safronkov told the 15-member body that Western countries were wrong to blame Assad for the attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun on April 4 .
“I’m amazed that this was the conclusion. No one has yet visited the site of the crime. How do you know that?” he asked.
But US, British and French intelligence agencies have said their claim is backed by several findings. Officials in Syria’s chemical weapons program were at the airstrip from which the attack was launched, and at which sarin was known to be stored illegally, US officials said. The Pentagon also traced a Russian drone that struck a hospital where victims of the chemical attack were being treated – an act the US suspects was an attempt to cover up the crime.
“When you drop gas or bombs or barrel bombs – they have these massive barrels with dynamite, and they drop them right in the middle of a group of people. And in all fairness, you see the same kids – no arms, no legs, no face,” Trump said of the attack.
He then said, “This is an animal,” to describe the Syrian strongman, a comment that went viral in Arabic on social media.