Putin-Trump meeting must bring specific results, not just symbolic handshake – Lavrov

Putin-Trump meeting must bring specific results, not just symbolic handshake – Lavrov
The meeting between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump must be well prepared in order for the first eye-to-eye talks of the Russian and US presidents to bring concrete results, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.

“As far as I understand, both Washington and Moscow need this meeting not for the sake of impressing somebody and saying: ‘Here’s a sensation. It was prepared for such a long time and now it happened,” Lavrov said in an interview with Mir-24 TV.

According to the Russian FM, the meeting between Putin and Trump is needed for something more than a handshake and an exchange of opinions on bilateral relations and international issues. This stance is shared by both Moscow and Washington, he added.

“Russia and the US have such strong impact on international stability and security that such a meeting will undoubtedly be expected to deliver specific results. In order for that to be achieved, it needs to be prepared thoroughly. We are working on that right now,” he said.

The Russian foreign minister stressed that Moscow isn’t paying much attention to contradictory statements on bilateral relations coming from various American officials, which may be explained by members of the new administration “not yet fully adjusting to each other.”

“We usually focus on the main character in the drama – US President Donald Trump, who highly appreciated [US Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson’s visit to Moscow as well as his own telephone conversation with President Putin, in which he expressed his intention to continue developing efforts to promote common interests in our relations,” Lavrov said.

Putin and Trump talked on the phone Tuesday, discussing the prospects of coordinated anti-terrorism activities in Syria and the situation around North Korea, among other issues.

Putin, Trump speak by phone, discuss Syria, N. Korea – Kremlin

The two leaders also spoke in favor of holding their much anticipated first meeting somewhere around the G20 summit, which is scheduled to take place in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7 and 8.

Tillerson visited Russia on April 12 and held talks with both Lavrov and Putin, with Trump saying the secretary of state had done “tremendous work” in Moscow.

In late April, Putin noted that Trump had so far failed to make good on his campaign promises to mend relations with Russia, adding that the level of trust between Moscow and Washington has even “degraded” since Obama left office.

The White House, for its part, recently called “the isolation of Russia in the UN” one of Trump’s main achievements during his first 100 days in office.

In his interview with Mir-24, Lavrov also touched on the issue of the EU sanctions imposed on Russia after it reunited with Crimea and the breakout of the Ukrainian conflict back in 2014.

He stressed that Russia is not in the habit of interfering in the affairs of other nations, and because of that it is not pushing for the removal of restrictions, which put politics above the economic needs of the people and whole countries in Europe.

READ MORE: Trump does opposite to what Obama did, Russia must teach him how to act in Syria – ex-US diplomat

“But the tendency toward giving up on this anomaly (sanctions) is, in my opinion, becoming stronger” within the EU, the top Russian diplomat said.

Lavrov again stressed that Russia is eager to resume dialogue with the US-led NATO military bloc, but it should be done on the basis of equality.

The development strategy of Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which unites Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, “doesn’t mention that any country or state or organization is our adversary. In contrast, NATO members regard Russia as an enemy or even a threat and attempt to downplay the status and the importance of CSTO activities,” he explained.

READ MORE: ‘Wishful thinking’: Kremlin dismisses reports of Putin-Trump meeting in May

The FM said that NATO’s “project of full absorption of Ukraine into its sphere of interest and including Ukraine into the North Atlantic Alliance, the inclusion of Crimea into their plans of encircling Russia – those plans have failed.”

He expressed regret that “because of an offense over an objective historic fact, they froze everything that united us, including the anti-terrorism battle.”

Is a second Korean War imminent?

A military build-up, bellicose rhetoric and the risk of nuclear war are ratcheting up tensions in Northeast Asia. The US is tied in a strategic knot and N. Korea is not backing down as diplomacy and deterrence collide.

USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier in the South China Sea (Reuters/US Navy/M. Brown)

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US begins deployment of controversial Korean THAAD missile system

North Koreans in Japan sense growing hostility

There are storm clouds gathering over the Korean peninsula. Whether it is the belligerent statements from the regime in Pyongyang, windy bravado from the Trump administration or regular missile tests and naval drills, there is concern around the world that a tipping point is about to be reached.

US Vice President Mike Pence delivered a speech last week aboard the carrier USS Ronald Reagan docked in Japan and said “the sword stands ready” when warning North Korea not to test US military resolve, adding that the US would respond with “overwhelming force” if attacked.

A few days later in response to US-Japanese naval drills in the Philippine Sea, the North Korean regime’s official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, said “our revolutionary forces are combat-ready to sink a US nuclear powered aircraft carrier with a single strike.”

After it was announced that the same USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group would set sail to the waters off the coast of the Korean peninsula, North Korea responded by saying the deployment was “an extremely dangerous act by those who plan a nuclear war.”

The Vinson will join the USS Michigan, a submarine equipped with up to 144 Tomahawk missiles, which arrived at the South Korean port of Busan on Tuesday.

Karte Nordkorea Punggye-ri Englisch

A deadly game of risk

So far, the latest tensions have yet to break the status quo, but there is a growing new flashpoint in the region that cannot be underestimated. North Korea’s military capability is incrementally getting stronger and there is no sign that the regime will change the aggressive posturing that it sees as necessary to its survival.

On Tuesday, the North Korean military celebrated its 85th anniversary with a massive display of firepower. According to North Korea’s official news agency, KCNA, it was the country’s “largest ever” live-fire drill involving more than 300 large-caliber artillery pieces and submarine torpedo attacks on mock warships. KCNA said the drill demonstrated the regime’s will to “pour a merciless rain of fire on the reckless imperialist US and its dirty followers.”

Adding pressure is a more aggressive and provocative US foreign policy stance under President Trump, who said in an interview last month that the US would act unilaterally if necessary against North Korea. He also insinuated that preemptive military action was an option to counter Pyongyang’s production of a nuclear-tipped missile capable of striking the US.

Watch video01:31

US installs THAAD amid rising tensions

“The difference between Trump and Kim Jong Un is that Trump has no larger plan regarding North Korea and no nuanced view of when, how, why or how long military force is useful or effective,” Katharine Moon, Chair of Korea Studies at the Brookings Institution, told DW.

“Kim has a larger plan, regime survival, maintenance of national pride, and resistance to US power. Trump changes his mind regularly; Kim does not,” she added.

“People have put blindfolds on for decades, and now it’s time to solve the problem,” said President Trump at a meeting Monday with UN Security Council ambassadors during a discussion on new North Korean sanctions.

On Wednesday, the US announced that it was installing the controversial THAAD missile defense system at deployment sites located south of Seoul. Speaking to the House Armed Services Committee in Washington DC, the top US commander in the Asia-Pacific, Admiral Harry Harris said that the system would be operational in a few days.

In response to the threatening statements from Pyongyang, Harris also said that North Korea didn’t have a weapon that could threaten the Vinson battle group. “If it flies, it will die,” he said, referring to an attack on US warships.

North Korea’s Defense Minister Pak Yong Sik said Monday during a “national meeting” in Pyongyang attended by thousands of officials that the country would use preemptive strikes to defend itself.

More strategic patience will be needed

Südkorea - Militärübung (picture-alliance/AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)A South Korean tank fires during joint military drills with the US on Tuesday

Despite threats of force, there are major limits for the US to acting preemptively when millions of people around Seoul are in range of conventional North Korean artillery, which is a simple, yet effective weapon.

“North Korea’s artillery could inflict significant damage on Seoul,” Kelsey Davenport, Director of Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association in Washington, told DW. “The country possesses a number of systems that are concentrated along the DMZ. Estimates put the number of artillery pieces at more than 11,000.”

Davenport added that although the systems are aging and have a high failure rate, some could reach Seoul. Specifically, 300 mm multiple launch rocket systems can fire into the center of the capital. According to the US strategy think tank Stratfor, if every one of these were fired, a single volley could “deliver more than 350 metric tons of explosives across the South Korean capital, roughly the same amount of ordnance dropped by 11 B-52 bombers.”

“Pyongyang doesn’t need sophisticated new weapons to confront us with the sort of risk no one will be eager to take; their old ones still work just fine,” John Schilling from the North Korea think tank 38 North wrote in a recent report.

A new kind of diplomacy?

Nordkorea Militärübung Jubiläum KPA (Reuters/KCNA)The North Korean military celebrated its 85th anniversary with a massive display of firepower.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will chair a meeting of the UN Security Council on Friday to discuss imposing further sanctions on North Korea. But most experts agree that the current diplomatic approach has failed miserably.

And amid the brave talk over the past week from Trump and Pence, action from the US resembles the same strategy of containment, diplomatic pressure and sanctions that have been the hallmarks of staggered US policy on North Korea for decades.

Moon said an untried strategy would be to isolate the regime with diplomatic sanctions and mobilize the General Assembly of the UN to suspend North Korea’s participation, which would restrict its access and importance.

“The council must be prepared to impose additional and stronger sanctions on North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” Trump told the UN Security Council ambassadors on Monday.

On Wednesday, Trump addressed the entire US Senate at an unprecedented meeting on North Korea at the White House and said the administration would be relying on Chinese economic leverage to pressure North Korea. On the same day, it was announced that the US would be tightening sanctions on Pyongyang.

“US military buildup so far is not part of a larger strategy, so it’s not clear what the end game is for the US,” said Moon, adding that the stated aim is to force North Korea to give up its nuclear program through military and economic pressure.

“That was the same ultimate goal for the administrations of George W. Bush, Obama, and now Trump,” said Moon. “The Carl Vinson strike group cannot stay at the DPRK’s doorstep indefinitely.”

Satellite imagery of North Korea’s nuclear test sites analyzed earlier this month by 38 North concluded that the Punggye-ri nuclear test site “appears able to conduct a sixth nuclear test at any time once the order is received from Pyongyang.”

For the time being, the Korean knot remains firmly tied.

Watch video02:13

North Korea marks military anniversary

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Entire Senate being called to White House for North Korea briefing

The entire U.S. Senate has been invited to the White House for a briefing Wednesday on the North Korea situation, amid escalating tensions over the country’s missile tests and bellicose rhetoric.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer confirmed the upcoming briefing, for all 100 senators, on Monday.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats plan to provide the update to lawmakers.

It is rare for the entire Senate to be invited to such a briefing.

Spicer clarified that while the event will take place on the White House campus, it is technically a Senate briefing and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is the one who convened it.

The briefing, first reported by Reuters, was confirmed after President Trump earlier spoke to the leaders of both China and Japan.

Trump spoke by phone with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Xi told Trump that China strongly opposed North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and hoped “all parties will exercise restraint and avoid aggravating the situation,” according to Chinese broadcaster CCTV. Trump hopes China could increase pressure on its isolated ally instead of using military options or trying to overthrow Kim Jong Un’s regime.

Trump and Abe agreed to urge North Korea to refrain from provocative actions.

Meanwhile, U.S. commercial satellite images indicated increased activity around North Korea’s nuclear test site, while Kim has said that the country’s preparation for an ICBM launch is in its “final stage.”

South Korea’s Defense Ministry has said the North appears ready to conduct such “strategic provocations” at any time. South Korean Acting Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn has instructed his military to strengthen its “immediate response posture” in case North Korea does something significant on the April 25 anniversary of its military. North Korea often marks significant dates by displaying military capability.

On Monday, Trump also had lunch with ambassadors of countries on the U.N. Security Council. Ahead of the meeting, Trump called for “big reforms” at the U.N. and criticizing its handling of recent events in Syria and North Korea – but said it has “tremendous potential.”

“You just don’t see the United Nations, like, solving conflicts. I think that’s going to start happening now,” he said.

Fox News’ Mike Emanuel and The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

North Korea: ‘Super-mighty pre-emptive strike’ will reduce US to ashes

North Korean state media threatened to launch a “super-mighty pre-emptive strike” that would reduce South Korea and the United states “to ashes.”

The Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper for North Korea’s ruling Worker’s Party, wrote, “In the case of our super-mighty pre-emptive strike being launched, it will completely and immediately wipe out not only U.S. imperialists’ invasion forces in South Korea and its surrounding areas but the U.S. mainland and reduce them to ashes,” according to Reuters. The rogue nation also claimed the U.S. and its allies “should not mess with us.”

TRUMP WARNS NORTH KOREA AS PYONGYANG VOWS MORE MISSILE TESTS

The threat came as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. was exploring ways to pressure North Korea to the negotiation table over its nuclear program.

“We’re reviewing all the status of North Korea, both in terms of state sponsorship of terrorism as well as the other ways in which we can bring pressure on the regime in Pyongyang to re-engage with us,” Tillerson said on Wednesday. “But re-engage with us on a different footing than past talks have been held.”

The seretive regime also released a propaganda video over the weekend that showed a simulated nuclear missile attack destroying an unidentified American city. A cemetery and American flag appeared with flames superimposed over the footage.

SOUTH KOREAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE CONCERNED ABOUT TRUMP’S AIRCRAFT CARRIER STORY

Tensions continue to mount as Trump takes a harder stance against North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Last week, the president made comments to Fox Business that he was sending an “armada” to deter Pyongyang.

“We are sending an armada, very powerful. We have submarines, very powerful, far more powerful than the aircraft carrier,” Trump told the Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo last week. “We have the best military people on Earth.  And I will say this: [North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un] is doing the wrong thing.”

The U.S. Navy said on Tuesday the carrier, USS Carl Vinson, was heading toward the Korean Peninsula, but only after it passes through Australia.

Pyongyang has promised to continue building its “nuclear deterrant” to prepare for any perceived or real attacks, adding that Trump’s administration was “more vicious and more aggressive” than the administration under former President Barack Obama.

On Sunday, the country attempted to launch an intermediate-range Musudan missile, but it blew up within seconds, one official said. The test occured at an air base near the city of Wonsan North Korea’s east coast along the Sea of Japan.

Vice President Mike Pence touched down in South Korea Sunday for his 10-day tour of Asia, where he said the “era of strategic patience” with North Korea was over.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan echoed the same sentiment during his visit to London. Ryan said allowing Kim to “have that kind of power” was unacceptable.

Putin meets with Tillerson in Russia as Syria rift deepens

Tillerson: Russia-US relations at a low point
Now PlayingTillerson: Russia-US…
Tillerson: Russia-US relations at a low point 03:45

Story highlights

  • Putin says relations with US have ‘worsened’ under Trump administration
  • Washington accuses Moscow of a confusion campaign over chemical attack

(CNN)US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday that relations with Moscow are at a low point after meetings in Russia that seemed to do little to bridge a deepening diplomatic divide over a chemical attack in Syria.

Relations are “at a low point, there is a low level of trust between our two countries,” Tillerson said at a news conference with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Tillerson and Lavrov spoke to the press after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in an extended display of US-Russian disagreements over the chemical attack that left more than 80 dead; the role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s future; US actions in the Middle East; and Russian involvement in the US election.
The unvarnished airing of differences made for one of the more bare-knuckled and blunt diplomatic encounters in recent years and points to a less accommodating and more confrontational approach to Russia than the Trump administration initially said it would embrace.
The US has tried to use the attack to try to drive a wedge between Moscow and Damascus, saying that Russia must choose between Syria — and being on the wrong side of history — or turn toward the international community in getting rid of Assad. Tillerson offered his Russian counterparts a bridge, tempering the open tensions by urging that Washington and Moscow find ways to cooperate.
Tillerson said that he and Lavrov discussed Assad at length and that he made clear that the Trump administration has come around to the view that the Syrian President cannot stay in power.
“Our view is that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end and they have brought that on themselves with their conduct,” the top US diplomat said.

Common ground?

Still, the two diplomats hinted that they could find common ground on this issue. Tillerson said that the US wouldn’t dictate how Assad’s departure takes place, saying, “We leave that to the process going forward,” and added that it’s important his departure “is done in an orderly way” and that it will “take a pace of its own.”
Lavrov, meanwhile, said that Russia is “not staking everything on a personality … we are simply insisting that everybody sits around the table and talks about it.”
Lavrov also announced that Putin has agreed to reinstate a military “deconfliction” channel to ensure there are no unintended clashes in the skies above Syria. And Tillerson said that the two sides had agreed to establish a working group that would address smaller frictions and aim to make progress on larger differences.
The news conference came after Lavrov issued a warning to Tillerson Wednesday against any further US strikes on the Syrian regime. Russia is Syria’s most powerful ally.
The two top diplomats had sat down together earlier in the day to work through the fallout of last week’s chemical attack in northwestern Syria, which plunged the old Cold War enemies to a new low.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. left, with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Moscow on Wednesday.

Russia has rejected the US conclusion that Damascus was responsible for last week’s chemical attack, which killed 89 people and prompted the US to carry out its first strike against the Syrian regime in the six-year conflict, taking out aircraft and infrastructure at a Syrian military air base.

Differences over attack

“The facts we have are conclusive” that the attack was planned and carried by Syrian government forces, Tillerson said, adding that the US was “quite confident of that” and describing it as “just the latest in a series of uses of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.”
Lavrov countered, “It is perfectly obvious the subject is one we diverge on.” He floated an alternate theory that “some of these stockpiles are being controlled by extremists,” and added, “Russia is insisting on an objective investigation” and will protest if it does not take place.
The White House on Tuesday accused Russia and Syria of carrying out a confusion campaign over who was responsible for the chemical attack.
Haley: I think Russia knew about attack

Haley: I think Russia knew about attack 02:41
Less than an hour after their news conference, Russia vetoed a UN resolution that would have required Syria to cooperate with investigators and face full accountability after the brutal chemical weapons attack in that country.
When asked about Russian interference in the US election, Tillerson said that Russia’s responsibility “is fairly well established.” That set off Lavrov, who hadn’t been asked for his thoughts but piped up to say that “not a single fact has been confirmed. Who saw the fact? We don’t know. No one has shown us anything.”
The Russian repeatedly raised the issue of US interference in other countries, pointing to the fallout after the Iraq War and the 2011 US intervention in Libya as he warned against the US taking action in Syria.
“This insistence on removing or ousting a totalitarian leader, we’ve already been through it, we know very well what happens when you do that,” Lavrov said. “I don’t know of any place of a dictator being removed smoothly without violence.”
Tillerson's tough task in Russia

Tillerson’s tough task in Russia 02:32
The Russians were clearly steeling themselves for a tough visit. Putin said in an interview with state-run MIR television earlier Wednesday that relations with the US had deteriorated.
“The working level of confidence in Russian-American relations, especially at the military level, under the administration of Donald Trump, has not improved, but rather worsened.”
Tillerson and Putin are no strangers — Putin in 2013 awarded the Order of Friendship to Tillerson when he was CEO of ExxonMobil, the highest honor Russia gives to foreigners.

An icy welcome

Despite that history, Lavrov gave Tillerson an icy welcome Wednesday, diving straight into Moscow’s grievances with Washington in what would usually be warm opening remarks.
Russia “saw some very troubling actions regarding the attack on Syria,” he said, according to an official Russian interpreter. Following the chemical attack, US President Donald Trump ordered a Tomahawk missile strike against Syria’s Shayrat airfield, from which the US says the aircraft launch the attack.
“We believe it is fundamentally important not to let these actions happen again,” Lavrov said.
Full coverage
  • Putin implies plot to stage attacks in Syria
  • He hit back at remarks Tillerson made a day earlier that Russia would have to decide whether it was with the US and the West in standing up against Assad, or against them, describing the comments as “wrong choices.”
    Tillerson took a more diplomatic tone in his opening remarks, saying that he hoped to clarify “areas of common objectives, areas of common interests, even when our tactical approaches may be different.”
    “And to further clarify areas of sharp difference, so we can better understand why these differences exist and what the prospects for narrowing those differences may be.”
    It was a hostile start to the long-awaited meeting, which began with the two men entering a conference room making very little eye contact, and made for a marked contrast to the hopes Trump has expressed of improved relations with Moscow.
    Lavrov also complained about the mixed messages coming out of Washington about the Trump administration’s Syria policy: “I will be frank that we had a lot of questions regarding a lot of very ambiguous as well as contradictory ideas on a whole plethora of bilateral and international agenda coming from Washington.”

    What is the US’ Syria policy?

    Indeed, the White House has also caused a great deal of confusion — the US position on Syria is still unclear, as Trump has made no comprehensive statement on Syria since last week’s missile attack. He has made some comments to Fox News on Syria, saying he did not plan for the US to be drawn fully into the Syrian war.
    White House press secretary Sean Spicer has said that the Trump administration would respond if the Assad regime used barrel bombs against his own people, something that has been a regular occurrence in the six-year civil war. Aides later clarified that this “did not signal a change in administration policy.”
    US Defense Secretary James Mattis has said that while defeating ISIS was first priority, further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would not be tolerated and could warrant additional military action.
    “If they use chemical weapons, they are going to pay a very, very stiff price,” Mattis told reporters during his first Pentagon briefing as secretary.

    On Trump’s Syria Strategy, One Voice Is Missing: Trump’s

    Photo

    Visiting the Sant’Anna di Stazzema memorial to victims of a Nazi massacre in Italy on Monday, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson hinted at more foreign intervention. CreditMax Rossi/Reuters

    WASHINGTON — In the days since President Trump ordered a cruise missile strike against Syria in retaliation for a chemical attack on civilians, his administration has spoken with multiple voices as it seeks to explain its evolving policy. But one voice has not been heard from: that of Mr. Trump himself.

    As various officials have described it, the United States will intervene only when chemical weapons are used — or any time innocents are killed. It will push for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria — or pursue that only after defeating the Islamic State. America’s national interest in Syria is to fight terrorism. Or to ease the humanitarian crisis there. Or to restore stability.

    The latest mixed messages were sent on Monday in both Washington and Europe. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson — during a stop in Italy on his way to Moscow for a potentially tense visit, given Russian anger at last week’s missile strike — outlined a dramatically interventionist approach. “We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” he said.

    Hours later, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said at his daily briefing that Mr. Trump would act against Syria not just if it resorted to chemical weapons, like the sarin nerve agent reportedly used last week, but also when it used conventional munitions. “If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president,” Mr. Spicer said.

    For Mr. Trump, who came to office espousing an “America first” policy that stayed out of the affairs of other countries where the United States had no interest of its own, responding to barrel bombs in Syria or to “any and all” humanitarian abuses “anywhere” would be a far more sweeping standard for American leadership. If anything, it sounds more like the activist advisers around President Barack Obama, such as Samantha Power, his ambassador to the United Nations, who pushed for more intervention to protect civilians in various conflict zones, often to no avail.

    Just as likely, analysts said, neither Mr. Tillerson nor Mr. Spicer really meant it or, possibly, fully understood the potentially far-reaching consequences of what they were saying. Unlike chemical weapons, barrel bombs — typically oil drums filled with explosives — are used with vicious regularity in the Syrian civil war. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the government dropped 495 barrel bombs in March alone, and 12,958 in 2016.

    By the end of the day Monday, fearing that a new “red line” had been drawn, the White House sought to unwind Mr. Spicer’s comment. “Nothing has changed in our posture,” officials said in a statement emailed to reporters. “The president retains the option to act in Syria against the Assad regime whenever it is in the national interest, as was determined following that government’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.”

    GRAPHIC

    Mapping the Targets of the American Military Attack on Syria

    A look at where the United States fired airstrikes in response to a chemical weapons attack against civilians.

    OPEN GRAPHIC

    The confusion was only heightened when The Associated Press quoted an unidentified American official saying that Russia had known about Syria’s chemical attack in advance. The White House summoned reporters for a background briefing but then made the session off the record, leaving the matter unaddressed. Hours later, a senior administration official issued a brief statement saying there was no consensus within the American intelligence community that Russia had foreknowledge of the attack.

    With all the murky signals, Mr. Trump has done little to clarify how he will proceed after firing Tomahawks at a Syrian air base in retaliation for the chemical attack, which killed more than 80 civilians. While his cabinet and other advisers seem to be reading from different talking points, the president has not spoken publicly about Syria at all since the missile strike last Thursday night. Even his famed Twitter feed has largely avoided the subject, beyond thanking military personnel.

    The only substantive comment he has made on Twitter about the situation was to defend against critics who asked why the runway at the air base had been left untouched. “The reason you don’t generally hit runways is that they are easy and inexpensive to quickly fix (fill in and top)!” he wrote on Sunday.

    The resulting vacuum has left world leaders and American lawmakers scratching their heads over how the United States will proceed now that it has taken direct action against Mr. Assad’s government for the first time in Syria’s six-year-old civil war.

    Mr. Tillerson made his comment a day before arriving in Moscow to confront Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, over the Kremlin’s support for Mr. Assad. There had been some expectation that Mr. Tillerson would meet with President Vladimir V. Putin. But Russia announced on Monday that Mr. Putin would be unavailable — another sign of the Kremlin’s growing displeasure.

    Although Mr. Tillerson, a former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, has known Mr. Putin for years, he will now be the first secretary of state not to meet with the Russian president or top Soviet leader in his inaugural trip to Moscow in office, according to State Department records and news reports.

    On Sunday, Mr. Tillerson called Russia “incompetent” for allowing Syria to hold on to chemical weapons, and he accused Russia of trying to influence elections in Europe using the same methods it employed in the United States.

    European countries, which had been deeply uneasy with the Trump administration’s more transactional approach to foreign policy and its potential willingness to forgive Mr. Putin’s annexation of Crimea and continued meddling in Ukraine, welcomed the strike on Syria and Mr. Tillerson’s reference to humanitarian issues’ guiding strategy.

    GRAPHIC

    Which Countries Support and Which Oppose the U.S. Missile Strikes in Syria

    Russia and Iran sharply criticized U.S. missile strikes on a Syrian airfield on Thursday night, while European countries have been broadly supportive so far.

    OPEN GRAPHIC

    “There is overwhelming support in what the U.S. did,” Britain’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, said on Monday, “signaling that we will not tolerate the barbaric use of chemical weapons.”

    The foreign ministers of France and Italy have made similar remarks, with Angelino Alfano of Italy saying the American military strike had contributed to a “renewed harmony” between the United States and Europe.

    Mr. Johnson said Europe also supported the Trump administration’s increasingly hard line on Russia, saying that Mr. Putin was “toxifying the reputation of Russia with his continuous association with a guy that has flagrantly poisoned his own people.”

    Still, the Europeans and others were left to puzzle out Mr. Trump’s strategy. Over the weekend, Mr. Tillerson suggested that the administration still wanted to stay out of Syria’s war. “We’re asking and calling on Bashar al-Assad to cease the use of these weapons,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” “Other than that, there is no change to our military posture.”

    Yet Nikki R. Haley, the ambassador to the United Nations, suggested on CNN’s “State of the Union” that Mr. Assad had to go. “There is no political solution that any of us can see with Assad at the lead,” she said.

    By the time Mr. Tillerson met with other foreign ministers from the Group of 7 in Italy on Monday, he seemed to be emphasizing a shift from Mr. Trump’s focus on economic nationalism to a foreign policy at least partly defined by humanitarian values. Mr. Tillerson belatedly added a visit to a memorial at Sant’Anna di Stazzema, a village near Lucca where 560 people, including children, were massacred by the Nazis during World War II.

    After the blaring of trumpets and the laying of a wreath at the memorial, Mr. Tillerson approached a small news media contingent to make a three-sentence declaration that included the pledge to hold accountable “any and all who commit crimes” against innocent civilians.

    But back in Washington, Mr. Spicer seemed to return to Mr. Trump’s “America first” formulation. “We’re not just going to become the world’s policeman running around the country — running around the world,” he said. “It’s our national security first and foremost.”

    Asked if Syria fit within that doctrine, he said, “Absolutely.”

    Correction: April 10, 2017
    An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the history of secretaries of state meeting with Russian leaders. Rex W. Tillerson will be the first secretary of state ever not to meet with a Russian president or top Soviet leader on his first trip to Moscow in office, not the first since Warren Christopher in 1993.

    Continue reading the main story

    Tillerson, on Eve of Russia Trip, Takes Hard Line on Syria

    Photo

    Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson speaking with reporters at Palm Beach International Airport on Thursday. Mr. Tillerson’s comments on Sunday were far more critical of the Russian government under President Vladimir V. Putin than anything President Trump has said publicly. CreditJoe Raedle/Getty Images

    WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson is taking a hard line against Russia on the eve of his first diplomatic trip to Moscow, calling the country “incompetent” for allowing Syria to hold on to chemical weapons and accusing Russia of trying to influence elections in Europe using the same methods it employed in the United States.

    Mr. Tillerson’s comments, made in interviews aired on Sunday, were far more critical of the Russian government than any public statements by President Trump, who has been an increasingly lonely voice for better ties with Russia. They seemed to reflect Mr. Tillerson’s expectation, which he has expressed privately to aides and members of Congress, that the American relationship with Russia is already reverting to the norm: one of friction, distrust and mutual efforts to undermine each other’s reach.

    “This was inevitable,” said Philip H. Gordon, a former Middle East coordinator at the National Security Council who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Trump’s early let’s-be-friends initiative was incompatible with our interests, and you knew it would end with tears.” The Russians’ behavior has not changed, Mr. Gordon added, and they “are using every means they can — cyber, economic arrangements, intimidation — to reinsert themselves around the Middle East and Europe.”

    Mr. Tillerson made it clear he agreed with that view, sweeping past Mr. Trump’s repeated insistence, despite the conclusion of American intelligence agencies, that there was no evidence of Russian interference in last year’s election. The meddling “undermines any hope of improving relations,” Mr. Tillerson said on ABC’s “This Week,” “not just with the United States, but it’s pretty evident that they’re taking similar tactics into electoral processes throughout Europe.”

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    Such tough talk will make Mr. Tillerson’s job even harder when he arrives Tuesday for the first visit to Moscow by a top Trump administration official. While he must offer sharp warnings to Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov and to President Vladimir V. Putin, if they meet — it was unclear whether such a meeting had been quietly arranged — he must also find a way forward with them to counter the Islamic State and then deal with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

    Yet as Mr. Tillerson arrived in Italy to meet with foreign ministers before going to Moscow, the administration was sending conflicting signals about its policy on Syria and the extent to which it would hold the country’s patron Russia responsible for continued violence.

    Mr. Tillerson and the new national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” said the American attack last week on a Syrian air base was intended solely to halt future chemical attacks, not to destabilize or overthrow the Assad government.

    “What’s significant about the strike is not that it was meant to take out the Syrian regime’s capacity or ability to commit mass murder of its own people,” said General McMaster, who is new to the Sunday television circuit, “but it was to be a very strong signal to Assad and his sponsors that the United States cannot stand idly by as he is murdering innocent civilians.”

    Neither man would commit to further military action in Syria even if Mr. Assad continued to kill civilians in large numbers by conventional means rather than with the chemical weapons that prompted Mr. Trump to reverse his stance on intervention. Instead, Mr. Tillerson said that defeating the Islamic State remained the first priority. Only then, he said, would he turn to a cease-fire process leading to elections, so that “the Syrian people can decide the fate of Assad.”

    But the American ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, suggested that such a process was doomed as long as Mr. Assad was in power. “We know there’s not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime,” she said on CNN. “If you look at his actions, if you look at the situation, it’s going to be hard to see a government that’s peaceful and stable with Assad.”

    That statement stood in contrast not only to Mr. Tillerson’s comments but also to Ms. Haley’s own remarks a week ago — before Mr. Assad carried out his latest chemical weapons attack on civilians — in which she insisted that his departure from office was not a diplomatic priority for the United States.

    Still, the overall tone of suspicion and condemnation of Russia’s actions in Syria indicated that Mr. Trump’s top national security advisers were nudging him back to a more traditional Russia policy. During his days as the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, Mr. Tillerson received a friendship award from Mr. Putin, and he is aware of the suspicions surrounding those ties and has gone the furthest in the administration in separating himself from the Russian leader.

    The challenges have only multiplied in recent days. The Russians, angry about the attack on the air base, have threatened to cut off a communication line that the American and Russian militaries have used to notify each other about air operations in Syria. And the attack has forced Mr. Putin into a tighter relationship with Mr. Assad, perhaps tighter than the Russian leader wants.

    Ms. Haley, who, like Mr. Tillerson, is new to diplomacy, has also apparently concluded that a hard line toward Russia is the safest course. The contrast between her remarks and Mr. Trump’s warm words for Mr. Putin on the campaign trail — as well as his refusal to acknowledge Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election — has been striking.

    The Trump administration’s Syria policy has been difficult to parse. Mr. Tillerson, in his first television appearances since taking office, seemed to describe two different strategic objectives: halting chemical attacks and ultimately negotiating a cease-fire. But he made it clear that he had no intention of backing a military intervention that would overthrow Mr. Assad. That suggested that as long as the dictator used conventional means to kill his own people — barrel bombs instead of sarin gas — the United States would keep its distance.

    “I think what the United States and our allies want to do is to enable the Syrian people to make that determination” about Mr. Assad’s fate, Mr. Tillerson said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” — a line that was often used by his predecessor in the Obama administration, John Kerry. “You know, we’ve seen what violent regime change looks like in Libya and the kind of chaos that can be unleashed.”

    Those remarks indicate that Mr. Trump does not yet have a grander strategy for Syria. Longtime Middle East experts said that might be a good thing.

    370COMMENTS

    “I for one am glad he does not have a fully thought-through strategy on Syria, because if he did, he’d probably get it wrong,” said Ryan C. Crocker, perhaps the most experienced American career diplomat in the region, and dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.

    “There are too many variables, too many unknowns,” he said, among them the expectation of American allies, including Saudi Arabia, that Mr. Trump should emphasize getting rid of Mr. Assad over defeating the Islamic State.

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