Trump administration shifts rhetoric on Russia

- President Donald Trump switched his rhetoric about Russia Wednesday, in stark contrast to his campaign trail praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin. At a news conference with the NATO Secretary General, President Trump talked about the mounting tension.

"Right now we're not getting along with Russia at all.  We may be at an all-time low in terms of relationship with Russia; this has built for a long period of time.  But we're going to see what happens," President Trump said.

The world is watching.

The two former cold war enemies have joined in the fight against ISIS, but Russia's backing of Syrian President Bashir al Assad has rankled the U.S.

Earlier Wednesday, in a confrontation at the United Nations, Russia vetoed a U.N. resolution that would have condemned the reported use of chemical weapons in a town in northern Syria and demanded a speedy investigation, triggering clashes between Moscow and the measure's Western backers.

U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley told the council: "We want to work with Russia to advance a political process in Syria. We want Russia to use its influence over the Assad regime to stop the madness and the cruelty we see every day on the ground."

"Today's vote could have been a turning point," she said. But "with its veto, Russia said no to accountability. ... Russia now has a lot to prove."

Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov told the council before the vote that a resolution was unnecessary, and the draft put forward by the Western powers pre-judged that the Syrian government was responsible for the April 4 attack on Khan Sheikhoun in which nearly 90 people died.

Russia has criticized previous investigations carried out by the OPCW and the United Nations which blamed the Syrian government for at least three chemical weapons attacks without visiting the sites. Safronkov reiterated Wednesday that an investigation cannot be conducted remotely and experts must be drawn from a wide geographical basis.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's two-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the foreign minister did not bridge that divide. Tillerson was greeted frostily in the Russian capital as officials began their meeting Wednesday by demanding to know America's "real intentions."

"We have seen very alarming actions recently with an unlawful attack against Syria," Lavrov said, referring to the 59 Tomahawk missiles Trump launched at an air base to punish Assad for using chemical weapons. "We consider it of utmost importance to prevent the risks of replay of similar action in the future."

"There is a low level of trust between our two countries. The world's two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship," Tillerson said at a news conference.

Russia continues to dispute knowledge of the chemical attack on syrian civilians that led president trump to order a missile strike at the launch site.

"Unbiased experts have to be dispatched to the place where chemical weapons were used," said Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in translation.

"It's the greatest upheaval I would say in the region that we've seen since the collapse of the Ottoman empire and people need to realize that. This is what we're facing," said Peter Bartu, a lecturer in Middle Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley. 

He said the conflict in Syria and the region is complicated by local factions, such as Turkey's concern with Kurdish fighters on its border with Syria's north or Jordan and Israel's concerns to the south. Bartu says those countries don't necessarily put the defeat of ISIS at the top of their priority list.

Also complicating the anti-ISIS coalition, is Syrian President Assad's tactics.

"The Assad government has been responsible for the vast majority of war crimes in the country. Siege and starvation tactics against towns, mass displacement, barrel bombs," Bartu said, "What's really important here how this is going to end, what are the rules of the game, and what pressure can they bring on the other parties to agree on what they say."

The vote on the Security Council resolution drafted by Britain, France and the United States was 10 in favor, Russia and Bolivia against, and China, Kazakhstan and Ethiopia abstaining.

It was the eighth veto by Russia, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, on a Western-backed Syria resolution and reflected the deep division that has left the U.N.'s most powerful body struggling to tackle the use of banned chemical weapons and to help end the six-year Syrian conflict. China has vetoed six resolutions.
 
Only weeks ago, it appeared that Trump, who praised Putin throughout the U.S. election campaign, was poised for a potentially historic rapprochement with Russia. But any such expectations have crashed into reality amid the nasty back-and-forth over Syria and ongoing U.S. investigations into Russia's alleged interference in America's U.S. presidential election.

"It'd be a fantastic thing if we got along with Putin and if we got along with Russia," Trump said. But he clearly wasn't counting on it.

"That could happen, and it may not happen," he said. "It may be just the opposite."

Trump, who last week ordered airstrikes on a Syrian air base in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack, was asked Wednesday if Syria could have launched the attack without Russia's knowledge. Trump said it was "certainly possible" though "probably unlikely."

The newly hardened view of Moscow comes as the president has tried to shake suspicions about the motives behind his campaign calls for warmer relations. As the FBI and multiple congressional committees investigate possible collusion between Russia and Trump's campaign, the president and his aides can now point to his hard-line stance on Syrian President Bashar Assad as evidence he's willing to stand up to Putin.

More than 80 people were killed in what the U.S. has described as a nerve gas attack that Assad's forces undoubtedly carried out. Russia says rebels were responsible for whatever chemical agent was used, which the Trump administration calls a disinformation campaign.

Not long before Trump spoke, Russia vetoed a Western-backed U.N. resolution that would have condemned the chemical weapons attack and demanded a speedy investigation.

The dim view of U.S.-Russian ties from both Trump and Tillerson reflected the former Cold War foes' inability to forge better relations, as Trump until recently has advocated.

Allegations of collusion between Russian officials and Trump campaign associates also have weakened Trump's ability to make concessions to Russia in any agreement, lest he be accused of rewarding bad behavior. Russia wants the U.S. to eliminate sanctions on Moscow related to its 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region and support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Until the chemical attack, the Trump administration had sought to step back from the U.S. position that Assad should leave power. But Tillerson repeated the administration's new belief that "the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end."

Beyond Syria, Russia's alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential election also hovered over what was the first face-to-face encounter between Putin and any Trump administration Cabinet member.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov blasted U.S. claims that it has "irrefutable evidence" of election interference.

"We have not seen a single fact, or even a hint of facts," he said. "I do not know who saw them. No one showed us anything, no one said anything, although we repeatedly asked to produce the details on which these unfounded accusations lie."

He also rejected American claims of certain evidence that Assad ordered the chemical attack.

Still, Tillerson sought to stress the positives from his meetings. He said working groups would be established to improve U.S.-Russian ties and identify problems. He said the two sides would also discuss disagreements on Syria and how to end the country's six-year civil war.

But such hopes appeared optimistic as the diplomats outlined their sharply diverging views on Syria. Tillerson said Syria's government had committed more than 50 attacks using chlorine or other chemical weapons over the duration of the conflict. And he suggested that possible war crimes charges could be levied against the Syrian leader. Russia has never publicly acknowledged any such attacks by Assad's forces and has tried for the past 18 months to help him expand his authority in Syria.

The civil war is separate from the U.S.-led effort against the Islamic State group in the north of the country.

While the most immediate U.S.-Russian dispute concerns culpability for the chemical weapons, broader disagreements over everything from Ukraine to Russia's support for once-fringe candidates in European elections are among other sore points.
 
Trump and others have indeed threatened similar action. But in a Fox Business Network interview, the U.S. president said he wouldn't intervene militarily against Assad unless the Syrian leader resorts to using weapons of mass destruction again. "Are we going to get involved with Syria? No," Trump said. But, he added, "I see them using gas ... we have to do something."

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