Donald Trump has said that US relations with Russia may be at “an all-time low” and declared a new-found faith in Nato, suggesting the alliance was “no longer obsolete”.
The US president’s remarks at the White House followed a two-hour meeting in Moscow between his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and Vladimir Putin, which failed to resolve any of the deep differences between the two nations on Syria, Ukraine, or Moscow’s interference in the 2016 US election.
“We’re not getting along with Russia at all,” Trump said, adding “we may be at an all-time low”. He avoided any direct criticism of Putin, but compared the relationship with Russia unfavourably to the one he had cultivated with China since the visit of Xi Jinping last week.
Russia, Trump noted, had vetoed a US-backed resolution on Syria at the UN security council while China had abstained, adding that he was “not surprised” by Beijing’s stance – implying he had negotiated it with Xi.
In the latest of a series of dramatic foreign policy reversals in recent days, Trump dropped an allegation he had repeated throughout his presidential campaign, telling the Wall Street Journal that the Chinese were “not currency manipulators”.
The president’s comments confirmed a significant shift in his positions since taking office nearly three months ago, cooling towards Russia and reaffirming support for Nato.
A day after approving Nato’s latest expansion with the accession of Montenegro, a source of fury in Moscow, Trump used a joint appearance with the alliance’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, to distance himself from his past denigration of Nato, while claiming credit for improving its performance.
“I complained about that a long time ago and they made a change, and now they do fight terrorism,” the president said. “I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.”
Tillerson’s two-hour audience with Putin in the Kremlin led to the removal of the most immediate threat of escalation, as Putin “reaffirmed” the maintenance of a hotline between the two countries’ militaries to avoid midair collisions between their aircraft operating in Syrian airspace.
America’s top diplomat said the two countries had agreed to create a working group to find solutions to “smaller problems” so that they could then concentrate on bigger issues.
But as he sat alongside his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, at a press conference, it was clear that fundamental differences between the US and Russia on Syria and beyond remained very much in place.
“I expressed the view that the current state of US-Russian relations is at a low point,” Tillerson said. “The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.”
Tillerson stuck to the Trump administration insistence that a chemical weapons attack that killed more than 80 people last week in Syria was the work of Bashar al-Assad, and that the Syrian president could play no part in the country’s long-term future.
“The perspective from the US is supported by facts we have that are conclusive that the chemical attack was planned and directed and executed by Syrian regime forces,” Tillerson said, adding that the “reign of the Assad family is coming to an end” and “Russia perhaps has the best means of helping the Assad regime recognise this reality”.
Russia later vetoed a UN security resolution put forward by the US, the UK and France calling for chemical weapons inspectors to be allowed to investigate chemical weapons attacks and for the Syrian regime to hand over air force flight logs and other operational details from 4 April, the day of the Khan Sheikhun attack. It was Russia’s eighth veto on a resolution putting pressure on the Assad regime. China abstained, while 10 council members voted for it.
On Ukraine, Tillerson said US sanctions on Russia for its military intervention there would stay in place, and on Russian interference in the US presidential election, he said Moscow’s role was “well established”.
Lavrov disagreed with him on every point. As to Syria’s political future, Lavrov said Russia was not “making a bet on one person or another, including Assad”, but said the “fate of Syria should be decided by Syrians themselves”.
Lavrov went on to say the US and its allies had failed to learn from the past and still clung to their ambitions to topple leaders they saw as dictators, a policy that had led to disaster elsewhere.
“We’ve already gone through such experiments based on the need to overthrow some dictator or authoritarian leader,” he said. “I don’t know of any positive examples of removing a dictator.”