RUSSIA COMPLAINS TO US OVER EXCLUSION FROM SYRIA CHEMICAL PROBE

http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Russia-complains-to-US-over-exclusion-from-Syria-chemical-probe-488626

 

MOSCOW – Russia has told the United States it regrets Washington’s opposition to letting its inspectors take part in an investigation into a chemical weapons attack in Syria earlier this month, the foreign ministry said on Friday.

It said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke by phone to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the two sides agreed to consider one more time an “objective investigation into the incident” under the aegis of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

 

The US State Department said that during the call Tillerson reiterated to Lavrov his support for the OPCW’s existing investigative mechanism. They also discussed a range of issues, including those covered during Tillerson’s April 11-12 visit to Moscow, the department said in a statement.

The United States accused the Syrian army of carrying out the April 4 attack in which scores of people died from poison gas, and it responded by launching cruise missiles against a Syrian air base.

Russia has defended its ally Damascus and blamed the incident on rebels fighting the government of President Bashar Assad.

The episode added to a long list of disputes between the two countries and has dashed Russian hopes that ties might improve with Donald Trump in the White House. Trump said last week that relations with Moscow “may be at an all-time low.”

Referring to another irritant in the relationship, the Russian ministry said Lavrov called on Tillerson to hand back “Russian diplomatic property in the USA unlawfully confiscated by the Barack Obama administration.”

Former President Obama expelled 35 suspected Russian spies in December and ordered the Russians to depart two countryside vacation retreats outside Washington and New York that he said were linked to espionage.

The ministry said the parties had agreed to launch a working group soon “to seek ways to get rid of irritants in bilateral relations.”

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FBI suspects Russia tried to infiltrate Trump campaign through advisers — report

The FBI believes Russia attempted to infiltrate Donald Trump’s campaign for president through some of his advisers, including Carter Page, CNN reported Friday, quoting government sources.

Intelligence gathered by the FBI in the summer of 2016 pointed to such efforts, though it was unclear if Page was at all aware of the attempts, according to CNN.

Page is among the Trump associates under scrutiny as the FBI and congressional committees investigate whether his presidential campaign had ties to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. Trump has denied any wrongdoing.

The Washington Post reported earlier this month that the FBI obtained a secret court order last summer to monitor the communications of Page, an adviser to then-candidate Trump.

Page was a little known investment banker when Trump announced him as a member of his foreign policy advisory team early last year. Trump aides insist the president has no relationship with Page and did not have any dealings with him during the campaign.

Page’s relationship with Russia began to draw scrutiny during the campaign after he visited Moscow in July 2016 for a speech at the New Economic School. While Page said he was traveling in a personal capacity, the school cited his role in the Trump campaign in advertising the speech.

Page was sharply critical of the US in his remarks, saying Washington has a “hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change.”

Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak, center, arrives before US President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of the US Congress in Washington, DC, February 28, 2017 (AFP/Brendan Smialowski)

Days later, Page talked with Russia’s ambassador to the US at an event on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention. Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke with the Russian envoy at the same event, a conversation he failed to reveal when asked about contacts with the Russians during his Senate confirmation hearings.

In 2013 Page is known to have met with a Russia intelligence operative in New York, though he has denied knowing that the man was a spy.

The US House Intelligence Committee on Friday said it has requested FBI director James Comey and others to testify as part of its Russia probe, one of the investigation’s first steps since its leader stepped down.

The committee said in a statement that it had sent letters Thursday to Comey and National Security Agency director Mike Rogers inviting them to appear at a closed-door hearing on May 2.

It also asked several senior national security figures in the previous administration to appear for an open hearing after May 2: former CIA director John Brennan, former director of national intelligence James Clapper and ex-deputy attorney general Sally Yates.

FBI Director James Comey at the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Russian actions during the 2016 election campaign on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on March 20, 2017. (AFP/Nicholas Kamm)

Comey and Rogers testified in an open hearing late last month. At the time, Comey confirmed that the FBI was investigating whether Trump’s associates coordinated with Russian officials in an effort to sway the 2016 presidential election.

The FBI is conducting a counterintelligence investigation exploring how Russia covertly sought to influence the American presidential election on Trump’s behalf. Such investigations are heavily classified and the committee asked Comey and Rogers to return to testify in a closed session.

The invitations come two weeks after House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes stepped aside as the Republican leader of the House investigation into Russian interference in November’s presidential election, after being criticized for compromising the probe in visits to Trump’s White House.

Nunes faced criticism from Democrats for seeking to turn the investigation away from Russia and toward Trump’s allegations that Barack Obama’s administration had abused its powers by spying on Trump and his advisors.

The probe is now headed by Mike Conaway, a seven-term Republican congressman from Texas tasked with restoring credibility to the bipartisan House investigation.

President Donald Trump gestures as he speaks at the Treasury Department in Washington, Friday, April 21, 2017. (AP /Alex Brandon)

“Back on track,” tweeted congressman Adam Schiff, the panel’s top Democrat, noting he sent the letters along with Conaway.

Nunes’s actions had cast a cloud over the investigation into Russian interference in last year’s presidential campaign and whether any Trump aides or associates collaborated with Moscow.

Two watchdog groups, Democracy 21 and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington have asked the House Ethics Committee to investigate whether Nunes disclosed classified information from intelligence reports.

In January, US intelligence chiefs said Russian President Vladimir Putin had masterminded the hacking and disinformation campaign that aimed to damage Trump’s rival Hillary Clinton and tip the vote in favor of the real estate magnate.

Trump has repeatedly called that charge “fake news.”

Russia Bans Jehovah’s Witnesses, Calling It an Extremist Group

MOSCOW — Russia’s Supreme Court on Thursday declared Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian denomination that rejects violence, an extremist organization, banning the group from operating on Russian territory and putting its more than 170,000 Russian worshipers in the same category as Islamic State militants.

The ruling, which confirmed an order last month by the Justice Ministry that the denomination be “liquidated” — essentially eliminated or disbanded — had been widely expected. Russian courts rarely challenge government decisions, no matter what the evidence.

Viktor Zhenkov, a lawyer for the denomination, said Jehovah’s Witnesses would appeal the ruling. He said it had focused on the activities of the organization’s so-called administrative center, a complex of offices outside St. Petersburg, but also branded all of its nearly 400 regional branches as extremist.

“We consider this decision an act of political repression that is impermissible in contemporary Russia,” Mr. Zhenkov said in a telephone interview. “We will, of course, appeal.”

An initial appeal will be made to the Supreme Court’s appellate division, Mr. Zhenkov said, and if that fails, Jehovah’s Witnesses will take the case to the European Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg, France.

Hard-line followers of Russia’s dominant faith, the Orthodox Church, have lobbied for years to have Jehovah’s Witnesses outlawed or at least curbed as a heretical sect, but the main impetus for the current campaign to crush a Christian group active in Russia for more than a century seems to have come from the country’s increasingly assertive security apparatus.

Founded in the United States in the 19th century, Jehovah’s Witnesses has its worldwide headquarters in the United States and, along with all foreign-led groups outside the control of the state, is viewed with deep suspicion by Russia’s post-Soviet version of the KGB: the Federal Security Service, or F.S.B.

Summing up the Justice Ministry’s case against the denomination, the ministry’s representative, Svetlana Borisova, told the Supreme Court on Thursday that Jehovah’s Witnesses had shown “signs of extremist activity that represent a threat to the rights of citizens, social order and the security of society.”

During six days of hearings over two weeks, lawyers and witnesses for the religious group repeatedly dismissed the extremist allegation as absurd, arguing that reading the Bible and promoting its nonviolent message could in no way be construed as extremist.

Human Rights Watch, in a statement issued in Moscow, condemned the court ruling as “a serious breach of Russia’s obligations to respect and protect religious freedom.”

Rachel Denber, the human rights group’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, said the decision delivered “a terrible blow to freedom of religion and association in Russia.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses shuns political activity and has no record of even peaceful — never mind violent — hostility to the Russian authorities. But it has faced growing hostility from the state since President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia began his third term in 2012 and put the Orthodox Church at the center of his push to assert Russia as a great military and moral power.

The denomination suffered relentless persecution by the KGB during the Soviet era, and after more than a decade of relative peace following the collapse of Communism in 1991, it again became a target for official harassment under a 2002 anti-extremism law. That law makes it illegal for any group, other than the Orthodox Church and other traditional religious institutions, to proclaim itself as offering a true path to religious or political salvation.

Russia Claims it Could Completely Disable US Navy With Electronic Warfare Tech

uss-donald-cook

There is an old saying in war. “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.” As China, Russia, and the United States beat the war drums and boast about the capabilities of their armies, they should take that saying very seriously. These geopolitical juggernauts may think that they have an ace in the hole for their militaries, but there’s no telling who would win in a war until the shooting starts.

In America’s case, our government puts a lot of faith in its expensive high-tech military. However, for decades countries like Russia and China have been developing cheap countermeasures to our best war machines, and they may be more effective than our politicians and generals would like to admit.

Or at least, that’s the takeaway from a Russian propaganda video that was released by Vesti, a media mouthpiece for the Kremlin. They claim that the Russian military has electronic warfare systems that can severely hinder the US Navy’s assets, including ships, planes and missiles.

The report claims that Russia has had a major breakthrough with this technology, which was demonstrated in an incident that occurred in the Black Sea in 2014. After Russia annexed Crimea the US deployed the USS Donald Cook to the area, and on April 12th, an unarmed Russian Su-24 fighter jet made a dozen very close range flyovers of the ship. Allegedly, the fighter jet was equipped with an electronic jamming device that disabled the ship’s AEGIS missile defense system. Though we know that the jet flew over the ship 12 times in a very provocative manner, the US government has never confirmed that the USS Donald Cook endured an electronic attack.

The report quoted a social media post from an unnamed sailor who was on the ship, which to be honest, sounded awfully fake, and doesn’t translate in a convincing way to English speakers.

“We watched the Russian on our locator until he reached the kill zone, to then ‘shoot him down.’ But when he entered the damned zone, mysticism began. Our locators were the first to go out, and then the whole Aegis went out. The pride of our fleet became our shame!”

The report also claims that Russia has electronic jamming equipment that can conceal their bases from radar, as well as devices that can jam signals to radio controlled landmines

Again, this is a work of propaganda, and shouldn’t be viewed without applying some critical thinking and research. However, to what degree that it is a work of fiction, is not clear. We don’t really know what the Russian military is capable of. Hopefully we’ll never find out.

ALEXANDER DUGIN AND STEVE BANNON’S IDEOLOGICAL TIES TO VLADIMIR PUTIN’S (KIKE) RUSSIA

http://www.newsweek.com/steve-bannon-donald-trump-jared-kushner-vladimir-putin-russia-fbi-mafia-584962?spMailingID=1721374&spUserID=MzQ4OTUyNDAxNTAS1&spJobID=770528467&spReportId=NzcwNTI4NDY3S0

 

These days, having any sort of ties to Moscow is politically toxic in Washington. Recent reports indicate Donald Trump may have borrowed Russian money to keep his property empire afloat—while several investigations loom into alleged Kremlin interference in the U.S. presidential election and a host of murky connections between Trump campaign officials and Russian hackers and spies.

Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, hasn’t been implicated in any of the ongoing probes. And unlike former Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort and Carter Page, he isn’t under investigation by the FBI for possible collusion with the Kremlin. But Bannon’s ties to Russia are ideological—and therefore, arguably, they’ve had a more profound impact on White House policy with Moscow.

At least until now. In early April, Bannon was booted off Trump’s National Security Council in a White House coup that was—among other factors—also a scuffle about whether to appease a resurgent Kremlin or confront it. Days later, he lost a heated debate inside the White House with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, over whether to strike Syria after the Moscow-protected regime of Bashar al-Assad killed civilians in a chemical attack.

Bannon, a former banker turned film producer and right-wing polemicist, has praised not only Putin but also a brand of Russian mystical conservative nationalism known as Eurasianism, which is the closest the Kremlin has to a state ideology. Eurasianism proclaims that Russia’s destiny is to lead all Slavic and Turkic people in a grand empire to resist corrupt Western values. Its main proponent is Alexander Dugin. With his long beard and burning blue eyes, Dugin looks like a firebrand prophet. His philosophy glorifies the Russian Empire—while Bannon and the conservative website that he founded, Breitbart News, revived the slogan of “America first,” which Trump later adopted in his campaign.

Related: It’s not Bannon vs. Kushner, it’s Trump vs. common sense

Yet Bannon and Dugin have common cause in the idea that global elites have conspired against ordinary people—and the old order must be overthrown. “We have arrived at a moment where the world is discovering a new model of ideologies. The election of Trump shows that clearly,” Dugin tells Newsweek.

Bannon, in turn, seems to admire Dugin—as well as Putin’s Russia—for putting traditional values at the heart of a revival of national greatness. “We, the Judeo-Christian West, really have to look at what [Putin] is talking about as far as traditionalism goes, particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism,” Bannon said at a Vatican-organized conference in 2014. “When you really look at some of the underpinnings of some of [Putin’s] beliefs today, a lot of those come from what I call Eurasianism.” Bannon declined to respond to Newsweek’s questions about his position on Russia and Dugin.

Bannon and Dugin’s speeches and writings indicate that their common enemies are secularism, multiculturalism, egalitarianism—and what Dugin calls the “globalized and internationalist capitalist liberal elite.” In both Bannon’s and Dugin’s worldview, the true global ideological struggle is between culturally homogenous groups founded on Judeo-Christian values practicing humane capitalism on one side and, on the other, an international crony-capitalist network of bankers and big business.

White House Chief Strategist Steve BannonDonald Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, on February 23.JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS

Bannon’s fix for the world is to revive the nation-state—precisely what Putin’s Kremlin is promoting as it backs anti–European Union candidates from Hungary to France. “I happen to think that the individual sovereignty of a country is a good thing and a strong thing,” Bannon told an audience of Catholic thinkers at the Vatican by video-link from the U.S. in 2014. “Putin is standing up for traditional institutions, and he’s trying to do it in a form of nationalism. [People] want to see the sovereignty for their country; they want to see nationalism for their country. They don’t believe in this kind of pan–European Union, or they don’t believe in the centralized government in the United States. They’d rather see more of a states-based entity that the founders originally set up, where freedoms were controlled at the local level.”

Dugin agrees. “We are unfairly described as nationalists—but this is not old-fashioned nationalism in the sense of ethnic chauvinism, but reflects the idea that we believe in many civilizations that are all equal and have the right to their own identity and decide their own course.”

Both men are also self-styled revolutionaries. Bannon—though he once worked at Goldman Sachs—reportedly described himself as a “Leninist” who wanted to “destroy the state.” And Dugin was the founder of the radical nationalist National Bolshevik Party, many of whose members have been imprisoned for attempting to foment armed uprisings among Russian minorities in former Soviet republics such as Kazakhstan.

Trump’s election was greeted with delight in Russia, encouraged by state television, which lionized the New York real estate mogul as a man who would finally give Russia the respect it was due. A group of St. Petersburg Cossacks even gave Trump the honorary title of “captain” (which they quickly withdrew after the Syria bombing). In the early days of the Trump administration, the Kremlin had high hopes of a grand bargain with Washington based on Trump’s promise that he would be able to make a deal with Putin and work with him to destroy the Islamic State group in Syria. Trump’s starting team gave the Kremlin even more hope. Bannon was head of strategy. Michael Flynn—who had accepted a $40,000 fee to appear at the Moscow anniversary party of the Kremlin-sponsored RT channel, where he sat next to Putin—was named national security adviser. Rex Tillerson, the former Exxon-Mobil CEO, who negotiated a $7 billion oil exploration deal in the Russian Arctic with close Putin ally Igor Sechin, was appointed secretary of state.

The love-in between Trump and the Kremlin proved brief. Bannon apparently made no move to lift U.S. sanctions on Russia imposed after the annexation of Crimea in 2014—or to lift a U.S. travel ban on Dugin, imposed after his vocal support for Moscow taking over not just Crimea but all of Ukraine. At the same time, damaging Russia allegations—from an unverified dossieralleging the Russian security services had compromising material on Trump to reports of contacts between Trump advisers and Russian spies—swarmed around the White House. In the wake of the resignation of Flynn in March after being untruthful about discussions with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kisylak about the possible lifting of sanctions, Trump quickly took the opposite tack, tweeting that he would be “tough on Russia”—and the White House announced it would not lift sanctions against the Kremlin until Crimea was returned to Ukraine. At the same time, Flynn’s replacement, General H.R. McMaster, along with Secretary of Defense General James Mattis, seemed to gain power within the administration and take a harder, more mainstream Republican line against Russia.

Many factors contributed to Bannon’s ouster from the National Security Council: He was instrumental in two travel bans on Muslim countries that the courts struck down, he was one of the key architects of a failed health care bill, and he was embroiled in a high-profile row with Kushner. But it was also clear in the aftermath of Flynn’s fall that admiration for Putin—or any kind of appeasement of Moscow—has become politically impossible for fear of giving congressional and FBI investigations evidence of collusion.

Bannon and the alt-right’s admiration for Putin has come into direct conflict with the White House’s new policies. In mid-April, in the aftermath of the Syria attack, Trump described U.S. relations with Russia as at “an all-time low” and reversed his earlier position on NATO, saying the alliance was “no longer obsolete.” At a G-7 meeting in Italy, where Britain called for more sanctions against Russia over its support for Assad, Tillerson spoke out emphatically against the Kremlin. And when he reached Moscow to meet Putin, his reception was chilly. “The level of trust at the working level, especially at the military level, has…degraded,” Putin told Russian TV.

The ideological honeymoon is over. The only question now is whether Bannon can survive the divorce.

China seeks Russia’s help to ‘cool’ North Korea situation

China is seeking Russia’s help to cool surging tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, the country’s foreign minister has told his Moscow counterpart, after Beijing warned of possible conflict over North Korea.

Fears over the North’s rogue weapons program have soared in recent days, with a US naval strike force deployed near the Korean peninsula, while President Donald Trump has warned the threat “will be taken care of” and Pyongyang has vowed a “merciless” response to any provocation.

China — the North’s sole major ally and economic lifeline — on Friday warned that war over North Korea could break out “at any moment.”

In a call with Sergei Lavrov later Friday, Wang Yi said the common goal of the two nations was to “bring all the parties back to the negotiating table,” according to a statement on China’s Foreign Ministry website.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (R) attends a working session during a meeting of Foreign Ministers of the G20 leading and developing economies at the World Conference Center in Bonn, western Germany, February 17, 2017. (AFP/Sascha Schuermann)

“China is ready to coordinate closely with Russia to help cool down as quickly as possible the situation on the peninsula and encourage the parties concerned to resume dialogue,” Wang told Lavrov, referring to the stalled six-party talks on the North’s nuclear program that includes Russia, China and the United States.

“Preventing war and chaos on the peninsula meets common interests,” he added.

Beijing has long opposed dramatic action against the North, fearing the regime’s collapse would send a flood of refugees across its borders and leave the US military on its doorstep.

Trump insists that China must exert more leverage on Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions or suffer the consequences.

Pyongyang is already under several sets of UN sanctions over its atomic and ballistic missile programs.

Trump Says U.S.-Russia Relations May Have Hit ‘All-Time Low’

(WASHINGTON) — Laying bare deep and dangerous divisions on Syria and other issues, President Donald Trump declared Wednesday that U.S. relations with Russia “may be at an all-time low.” His top diplomat offered a similarly grim assessment from the other side of the globe after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

“Right now we’re not getting along with Russia at all,” Trump said flatly during a White House news conference. It was stark evidence that the president is moving ever further from his campaign promises to establish better ties with Moscow.

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.”

Not long before Trump spoke in Washington, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson struck a similar tone after an almost two-hour meeting with Putin, saying the two countries had reached a “low point” in relations.

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.

Tillerson was greeted frostily in the Russian capital as Lavrov 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.”

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.”

U.S. Takes Sharper Tone on Russia’s Role in Syria

WASHINGTON — President Trump and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson sought on Wednesday to isolate President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for backing the Syrian government in the wake of its lethal chemical weapons attack on civilians, and worked to build international pressure on Moscow to change course.

In Washington, Moscow and New York, the Trump administration publicly chastised Mr. Putin but privately worked to hash out increasingly bitter differences with him. At the same time, Mr. Trump embraced NATO — a military alliance he had previously derided as obsolete — as an effective and vital force for peace and security in a region where Russia has been an aggressive actor.

During his presidential campaign, and in his early days in office, Mr. Trump’s approach to foreign policy included speaking warmly of Mr. Putin and the prospects of a United States alliance with Russia. He had also questioned the usefulness of NATO, and the concept of an alliance for common defense to counterbalance Moscow’s belligerence.

In an interview that aired on Wednesday, Mr. Trump said that Mr. Putin was partly to blame for the conflict in Syria and denounced him for backing President Bashar al-Assad, whom he called an “animal.” Later at the White House, Mr. Trump said that Russia had likely known in advance of the Syrian government’s plan to unleash a nerve agent against its own people, and asserted that the United States’ relations with Moscow were at an “all-time low.”

 

In Moscow, Mr. Tillerson came away from a two-hour meeting with Mr. Putin — the first such face-to-face session of the Trump administration — without reaching agreement on facts involving the chemical weapons assault in Syria or Russian interference in the American election. And sharply diverging from the meeting of the minds between the United States and Russia that Mr. Trump frequently aspired to when he was campaigning, there was no visible warming of the relationship.

“There is a low level of trust between our countries,” Mr. Tillerson told reporters at a joint news conference with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov. “The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.”

The most immediate casualty of the clash was Russia’s decision last week to suspend a communication channel, set up in 2015, to share information about American and Russian air operations over Syria to avoid possible conflict. Mr. Lavrov said on Wednesday that “we’re willing to put it back into force” if Washington and Moscow can resolve their differences.

Further punctuating the Syria dispute, Russia on Wednesday vetoed a Western-backed resolution at the United Nations Security Council that condemned the chemical weapons attack. It was the eighth time in the six-year-old Syrian civil war that Russia, one of the five permanent Security Council members, had used its veto power to shield the government in Damascus. But in a possible sign of Russia’s isolation on the chemical weapons issue, China, the permanent member that usually votes with Russia on Syria resolutions, abstained.

The vote came the day after Mr. Trump spoke by phone to President Xi Jinping of China, whom he hosted last week at a summit at his Mar-a-Lago retreat in Palm Beach, Fla. White House officials said they credited the relationship between the two leaders that was forged during the visit, and the conversation Tuesday evening, with helping to influence China’s vote.

The day began with harsh words from Mr. Trump toward Mr. Putin, whom he had once praised effusively.

“I really think there’s going to be a lot of pressure on Russia to make sure that peace happens, because frankly, if Russia didn’t go in and back this animal, we wouldn’t have a problem right now,” Mr. Trump said in an interview with Fox Business Network, referring to Mr. Assad. “Putin is backing a person that’s truly an evil person, and I think it’s very bad for Russia. I think it’s very bad for mankind. It’s very bad for this world.”

Later, after a meeting at the White House with Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, Mr. Trump went out of his way to praise the military institution, which he called a “great alliance,” and to express disappointment with Russia.

Asked whether it was possible that Syrian forces could have launched the chemical attack without Russia’s knowledge, Mr. Trump said: “It’s certainly possible; I think it’s probably unlikely.”

“I would like to think that they didn’t know, but certainly they could have. They were there,” Mr. Trump said of the Russians during a 30-minute news conference at the White House.

Even as they have intensified their criticism of Russia for backing Mr. Assad, other senior Trump administration officials, including Mr. Tillerson and Jim Mattis, the secretary of defense, have been careful to say there is no consensus that Moscow had foreknowledge that the Assad government planned to launch a chemical assault.

“Right now, we’re not getting along with Russia at all — we may be at an all-time low in terms of a relationship with Russia,” Mr. Trump said on Wednesday. Still, he held out hope that the United States and Russia could come to terms, suggesting that Mr. Tillerson’s talks with Mr. Putin had gone better than expected.

A quick détente seemed a remote possibility, given the level of tension surrounding the aftermath of the Syrian chemical weapons attack. On Tuesday, the White House accused Mr. Putin’s government of covering up evidence that Mr. Assad had been responsible for the sarin assault, which was launched from a base where Russian troops are operating.

Mr. Putin shot back that the charge was fabricated and accused the administration of Mr. Trump, who American intelligence agencies believe benefited during the election campaign from Russian cyberattacks intended to embarrass his Democratic rival, of fabricating the evidence to create a fake confrontation.

Amid the rift with Russia, Mr. Trump made a striking reversal on NATO, saying the alliance had transformed into an effective one since he took office.

“I said it was obsolete; it’s no longer obsolete,” Mr. Trump said, standing beside Mr. Stoltenberg.

Mr. Trump attributed his change of heart to unspecified transformations within NATO, which he said were a direct response to criticism he had leveled that the alliance was not doing enough to combat terrorism.

“I complained about that a long time ago,” Mr. Trump said, “and they changed.”

It was not clear what the president was referring to; NATO forces have been fighting alongside the United States in Afghanistan for more than a decade, an effort focused on combating terrorist groups including the Taliban.

Still, the turnabout drew praise from some lawmakers who had been concerned with Mr. Trump’s previous stance.

“Without NATO, the Soviet Union would be quarterbacking half of Europe today and Putin knows it,” said Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska. “NATO is the most successful military alliance in human history. This was the right decision.”

His comments came hours after a senior White House official said the Trump administration had supported the admission of Montenegro into NATO this week, in part to counter the influence of Russia in the small Balkan nation. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the official cited “credible reports” that Moscow had backed a plot for a violent Election Day attack there last fall.

Mr. Trump on Tuesday signed the paperwork allowing Montenegro to enter NATO, two weeks after the Senate approved the move in a March 28 vote. The country’s admission, White House officials said in a statement, should signal to other nations aspiring to join the alliance that “the door to membership in the Euro-Atlantic community of nations remains open and that countries in the western Balkans are free to choose their own future and select their own partners without outside interference or intimidation.”

Putin meets Tillerson as US, Russia wrangle over Syria

MOSCOW (AFP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday met US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, after complaining of worsening ties with Donald Trump’s administration as the two sides spar over Syria.

Putin received Tillerson at the Kremlin along with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov after the top diplomats held several hours of talks dominated by the fallout of an alleged chemical attack in Syria.

Despite initial hopes in Moscow of better ties with the US under Trump, the two powers have descended into a furious war of words over the incident and a retaliatory US missile strike against the forces of Moscow’s ally Syrian President Bashar Assad last week.

Russia has slammed Washington’s attack on a Syrian airbase and, as Tillerson met Lavrov, Putin admitted that relations between Washington and Moscow have worsened in the three months that Trump has been in office.

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a press conference in Moscow on April 11, 2017. (AFP Photo/Pool/Sergei Chirikov)

“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 the transcript of an interview with Mir television released by the Kremlin.

“Where is the proof that Syrian troops used chemical weapons? There isn’t any. But there was a violation of international law. That is an obvious fact.”

‘Clarify differences’

Tillerson, a former oil executive, might once have looked like the perfect envoy to mend strained ties, having worked closely with the Kremlin while negotiating deals for energy giant ExxonMobil.

But the underlying tensions between the former Cold War foes never went away and last week’s chemical attack has left ties once again in crisis.

At the start of his meeting with Lavrov, Tillerson said he wanted to “clarify areas of common objectives, areas of common interest — even where our tactical approaches may be different — and further clarify areas of sharp difference.”

During his visit — the first to Moscow by a senior Trump administration official — Tillerson was expected to challenge Russia to distance itself from Assad and his Iranian backers, an idea that the Kremlin dismissed as “absurd.”

Lavrov told Tillerson Moscow was hoping to understand Washington’s “real intentions” and warned that the Kremlin considered it “fundamentally important” to prevent more “unlawful” US strikes against its ally Syria.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov walk prior to their talks in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, April 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

In a further indication of the stark differences, Russia also slammed as “unacceptable” a proposed UN resolution put forward by the US, Britain and France on the alleged chemical attack, and said it would veto it in its current form at a vote expected later Wednesday.

The Western-backed resolution — which was slightly revised from a proposal presented last week — demands that the Syrian government cooperate with an investigation into the alleged attack.

As tempers rose ahead of Tillerson’s visit, US officials suggested Russian forces may have colluded in the latest atrocity blamed on Assad’s regime that left 87 civilians dead, including children in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

The White House compared Assad’s tactics to those of World War II Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, sparking widespread criticism for apparently ignoring the Holocaust.

Putin meanwhile accused Assad’s opponents of planning to stage chemical attacks to be blamed on Damascus in order to lure the United States deeper into the conflict.

Evacuations in Syria

In a sign that the Kremlin is not set to drop its firm support for Assad, Syria’s foreign minister is set to jet in to Moscow for talks with Lavrov on Friday before a three-way meeting involving Iran’s top diplomat on Friday.

As the powerbrokers wrangled over the six-year war in Syria that has cost some 320,000 lives, a deal on the ground to evacuate four besieged towns began Wednesday with an exchange of prisoners between rebels and government forces, local sources and state media said.

Syrian forces stand guard next to a convoy of buses as they wait to enter the besieged rebel-held town of Zabadani, northwest of Damascus, on April 12, 2017. (AFP Photo/Stringer)

Thousands of people, both civilians and fighters, are expected to begin leaving government-held Fuaa and Kafraya and opposition-controlled Madaya and Zabadani later Wednesday.

The evacuations of the four besieged towns come under an agreement brokered by rebel backer Qatar and government ally Iran last month.

Russia vetoes UN draft resolution on Syria gas attack probe

UNITED NATIONS, United States — Russia on Wednesday vetoed a UN draft resolution demanding the Syrian government cooperate with an investigation of a suspected chemical attack that the West blames on President Bashar Assad’s forces.

It was the eighth time that Russia has used its veto power at the UN Security Council to block action directed at its ally in Damascus.

Britain, France and the United States put forward the measure in response to the suspected sarin gas attack in Khan Sheikhun on April 4 that left 87 dead, including 31 children.

China, another veto-holding power at the council, abstained in the vote, as did Kazakhstan and Ethiopia.

Bolivia voted against the measure and 10 other council members supported it.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said he was “dismayed” by the Russian veto.

“This puts Russia on the wrong side of the argument,” Johnson said in a statement issued in London.

Russia imposed its veto as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said after talks in Moscow that there was a “low level of trust” between the United States and Russia.

The proposed resolution would have condemned the alleged attack and expressed the council’s full backing to investigators from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

The draft specifically would have demanded that the Syrian government provide flight plans, flight logs, and other information on its military operations on April 4, hand over the names of commanders of any aircraft, and provide access to air bases to UN investigators.

Russia’s UN Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov told the council before the vote that during talks earlier Wednesday in Moscow Russia asked for an independent international investigation to examine the April 4 attack on Khan Sheikhoun that killed nearly 90 people. He said Tillerson was considering the request.