US stance on Russia hardens as Tillerson arrives in Moscow

Secretary of state says US will hold to account those who commit crimes against humanity

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson blames Russia's inaction for helping fuel a deadly poison attack against Syrian civilians last week. Video: Reuters

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson arrives in Moscow on Tuesday amid increasing indications that the Trump administration is hardening its stance against Russia following last week's poison gas attack in northern Syria.

Mr Tillerson, who is to hold meetings with senior Russian officials, said on Monday that the United States would hold to account those who commit crimes against humanity.

The US blames the Syrian regime for the chemical attack in Idlib province that killed at least 86 people, but it has also accused Russia – an ally of the Damascus government – of being either complicit in the assault or not doing enough to stop it.

Speaking at a ceremony to commemorate the victims of a Nazi massacre in the village of Sant'Anna di Stazzema in northern Italy on Monday ahead of a G7 meeting in Lucca, Mr Tillerson pledged to "rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world".


His comments are the latest sign from Washington that the Trump administration is reconsidering its attitude towards Russia as it demands Moscow to reassess its support for the Syrian government.


US president Donald Trump has frequently expressed admiration for Russia's president Vladimir Putin and there had been expectations that his election to the White House would bring a "reset" in US-Russian relations, which deteriorated badly during the presidency of Barack Obama.

Ahead of Mr Tillerson’s visit to Moscow, foreign ministers representing the G7 countries were said to be weighing new sanctions on Russia and Syrian individuals, the first multilateral response by the West to the chemical attack in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, and the subsequent missile assault on the Syrian Shayrat airbase by the US military.

Speaking on the fringes of the meeting in Italy, British foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who cancelled a planned trip to Moscow on the back of the poison gas attack, said it was important that the West was united in its response to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

“It’s very important in these circumstances for the world to present a united front and for there to be absolutely no ambiguity about the message,” he said. “The game has now been changed and it’s important that message should be heard from the Americans to the Russians.”


The US and EU have already imposed sanctions on Russian individuals and businesses over its incursion into Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, and EU countries are now redoubling efforts to persuade Moscow to abandon its support for the Assad regime .

While the US decision to strike Syria was broadly welcomed by the US’s European allies, they are also seeking guidance from Washington about America’s long-term strategy on Syria, following the surprise decision by Mr Trump to launch the first US military action against the Assad regime.

Speaking on Sunday, Mr Tillerson criticised Russia’s support for the Syrian government and questioned its apparent inability to prevent the chemical attack in Idlib province, which prompted the US air strikes. Noting that Russia had “agreed to be the guarantor of the elimination of the chemical weapons”, he added: “Why Russia has not been able to achieve that is unclear to me.”

‘Horrific attacks’

“I hope Russia is thinking carefully about its continued alliance with Bashar al-Assad because every time one of these horrific attacks occurs, it draws Russia closer into some level of responsibility,” Mr Tillerson told ABC News. “I don’t draw conclusions of complicity at all, but clearly they’ve been incompetent and perhaps they’ve just simply been outmanoeuvred by the Syrians.”

While Mr Tillerson had been due to meet senior Russian officials on Tuesday and Wednesday, including his counterpart Sergei Lavrov, Kremlin officials played down the possibility of a meeting between the secretary of state and the Russian president Vladimir Putin. Mr Putin personally presented Mr Tillerson with Russia's Order of Friendship in 2013, the highest honour bestowed on foreign citizens, when Mr Tillerson was chief executive of oil giant ExxonMobil.

Russia entered the Syrian war on the side of Bashar al-Assad in 2015 and is understood to have had a presence at the Shayrat airfield from where last week’s chemical attacks were launched, prompting questions as to how much Moscow knew of the chemical attack.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

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