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Putin lashes out at U.S. as Tillerson mulls 'sharp' differences with Russian counterpart

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. (AFP / Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. (AFP / Getty Images)

As top diplomats from Russia and the United States held a testy meeting Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin lashed out at the Trump administration, saying relations between Washington and Moscow had deteriorated.

"You can say that the level of trust on a working level, especially on the military side, has not improved but most likely worsened," Putin said in a television interview, according to a transcript released by the Kremlin.

His comments reflected the palpable tensions infusing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's trip to Moscow, the first to Russia by a Trump administration official.

As he stepped into a long session with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Tillerson said he was trying to confront "areas of sharp difference" with Moscow.

Lavrov, in turn, accused the United States of conducting "an illegitimate attack" against Syria when it fired cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield in retaliation for last week's deadly chemical attack on civilians, which U.S. officials blame on President Bashar Assad.

Lavrov said his government's priority was to prevent the "relapse of such actions."

Lavrov and Tillerson shook hands as they met but did not smile and clearly appeared unhappy with one another.

Russia and the United States disagree over Assad's fate. The Syrian regime is Moscow's chief ally in the Middle East. 

Tillerson said he wanted "a very open, candid and frank exchange" with Lavrov.

"Our meeting today comes at an important moment in our relationship so that we can further clarify areas of common objectives, areas of common interest -- even where our tactical approaches may be different -- and further clarify areas of sharp difference so that we can better understand why these differences exist," Tillerson said.

Lavrov said Moscow wants to understand the Trump's administration's "real intentions."

It remained unknown whether Putin would receive Tillerson. It is customary for U.S. secretaries of State to meet with Putin when in Moscow, and Tillerson and Putin are friends from the American's days as chief executive of ExxonMobil. Putin bestowed one of Russia's highest honors, the Order of Friendship, on Tillerson just four years ago.

But already bad relations between Moscow and Washington have been further strained by the Syria issue, despite Trump's campaign pledges to be more friendly with Russia -- and the belief in the U.S. intelligence community that Moscow helped Trump get elected.

Putin, in the television interview, was no kinder to the United States' NATO allies for their unanimous support for the U.S. retaliatory strike against Assad's forces.

"Everyone is nodding, like bobbing-head dolls, without analyzing anything that is happening," Putin said. "Where is the proof the Syrian military used chemical weapons? None. And there is a violation of international law. That's an obvious fact."

Trump had studiously avoided criticizing Putin, but finally addressed the matter in an interview with Fox Business Network.

"Frankly, Putin is backing a person that's truly an evil person," Trump said, referring to Assad. "I think it's very bad for Russia. I think it's very bad for mankind."

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