Trump says US relations with Russia at ‘all-time low’

Moscow rejects calls by United States to withdraw support for Syrian president

Tensions between Russia and the United States deepened yesterday as US president Donald Trump said relations with Russia were at an "all-time low". Moscow rejected calls by the US to withdraw support for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Speaking in the White House following a meeting with the secretary general of Nato, the US president said it was "possible" that Russia knew about the chemical attacks in Syria on April 4th. "I would like to think that they didn't know but certainly they could have. They were there . . . We'll find that out," he said.

Any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable . . . those accountable must be held responsible

Describing the Syrian leader as a “butcher” he said he had “absolutely no doubt” the US had done the “right thing”. He also said he did not know Russian president Vladimir Putin. “Putin is the leader of Russia. Russia is a strong country. We’re a very, very strong country. We’re going to see how that works out.”

Jens Stoltenberg, who heads up the 28-member Nato alliance, said that "any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable . . . those accountable must be held responsible". But he stressed that dialogue needed to continue with Russia. "We don't want a new Cold War. We don't want a new arms race."


Mr Trump, who strongly criticised the transatlantic alliance – which was formed in 1949 to counter the threat of the Soviet Union – during his election campaign, underlined the importance of the organisation during a press conference with Mr Stoltenberg. "I said it [Nato] was obsolete. It's no longer obsolete," he said, though he repeated previous calls by US presidents for Nato's European members to increase their defence spending.

High-level diplomacy

Mr Trump's comments came at the end of a day of high-level diplomacy in Moscow, after US secretary of state Rex Tillerson met Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow. But there was no sign of a breakthrough following the talks, with the two sides seemingly as far apart as ever on Syria.

The final outcome does not provide for a role for Assad or the Assad family for the future governments in Syria

Speaking following the meetings, Mr Lavrov ruled out withdrawing his support for Syrian leader Assad, saying that “ousting a particular personality is not on our agenda”.

Mr Tillerson reiterated the US view that President Assad should go. “The final outcome does not provide for a role for Assad or the Assad family for the future governments in Syria,” he said.

Mr Lavrov also disputed the US claim that the Syrian government was behind the chemical attacks on the town of Khan Sheikhoun on April 4th, stating that Russia had “no confirmation” chemical attacks had taken place and was calling for an independent investigation.

Mr Tillerson reiterated the United States view that Assad aircraft carried out the attack.

The world's two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this relationship

“The perspective of the United States is that the recent chemical weapons attack carried out by Syria was planned, directed and executed by Syrian regime forces. This is just the latest use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime,” he said, noting that Assad had presided over more than 50 attacks, using weapons such as cluster bombs and chlorine bombs “intended to maim and kill in the most horrific ways”.

As both sides sought to find some common ground Mr Tillerson said there was a “low level of trust” between the US and Russia and pledged to increase communication between Washington and Moscow. “The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this relationship,” he said.

In a positive development, Russia agreed to consider reopening lines of communication over movements across Syrian airspace, an arrangement that had been cancelled by Moscow in retaliation for last week’s missile air strikes by the US in Syrian air space.

The two foreign ministers also said they had agreed on creating a “unified, stable Syria” and on the need to defeat Islamic State in the region. But while Mr Tillerson tamed some of the more provocative language he had used towards Russia in recent days, he said the two countries continued to “diverge” on key issues.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent