Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday that he told Russian President Vladimir Putin during their two-hour meeting in Moscow that "the current state of U.S.-Russia relations is at a low point."
"I expressed the view that the current state of U.S.-Russia relations is at a low point," Tillerson said in a news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. "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 Russia and the United States plan to establish a "working group" to address minor foreign policy issues in order to rehabilitate the broader relationship between the two nations.
"We further discussed approaches to improving our channels of communication," Tillerson said. "We had a lengthy exchange of views regarding the situation in Syria and shared perspectives on possible ways forward."
Tillerson, who spoke with Putin for two hours after an even longer meeting and lunch with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, acknowledged the ongoing major foreign policy disagreements. Both Tillerson and Lavrov reiterated their disagreement about whether Syrian President Bashar Assad is responsible for the April 4 use of chemical weapons attack in rebel-held territory, for instance. But Tillerson also called for an end to "reciprocal" actions that undermine trust between the U.S. and Russia.
"We need to attempt to put an end to this steady degradation, which is doing nothing to restore the trust between our two countries or to make progress on the issues of greatest importance to both of us," Tillerson said. "We've agreed to establish a working group to address smaller issues and to make progress towards stabilizing the relationship so that we can then address the more serious problems."
They plan to step up talks about how to end the Syrian civil war, but the meeting did not appear to have resolved even their disagreement about whether Assad is responsible for the most recent use of chemical weapons. Tillerson defended Trump's statement that Assad is "an animal" — "the characterization is one that President Assad has brought upon himself," he said — but Lavrov maintained that the west can't be sure Assad was behind the attack.
"They have been found to be guilty of fraud," Lavrov said of civilian organizations that have provided to the United States and other governments. "There should be an investigation into what has happened."
Lavrov, through a translator, said at the news conference: "This has been a long day."
"It has lasted for more than 2 hours," Lavrov said of the Tillerson-Putin meeting. "The negotiations have proven to be substantial and very frank. They have comprised a whole gamut of issues, bilateral relations as well as our interaction in the international arena."
A reporter asked Tillerson if they talked today about the alleged interference of Russia into the 2016 presidential election and the issue of cyber security.
Tillerson responded, saying: "We touched on it briefly, on the issue of cyber security and, in particular, on the challenges that it is placing on everyone, in terms of a new threat, an emerging threat."