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MOSCOW — Russian officials launched a barrage of criticism against the Donald Trump administration at the start of talks between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Wednesday.
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov set the tone for the day just minutes before the meeting was due to start, describing the rhetoric used by the United States as “primitive and loutish.”
Moments later on his way into the meeting with Tillerson, Lavrov said he believed the visit was timely as Russia saw what it called "troubling actions" last week in Syria, a reference to the U.S. bombing an air field in that country. American officials said the base had launched an alleged chemical weapons attack in northwestern Syria that killed more than 80 civilians.
"We believe it fundamentally important not to let these actions happen again in the future," Lavrov added.
Tillerson was less confrontational in his remarks to reporters and said talks with Lavrov represented "an important moment in the United States’ relationship with Russia."
The meetings Wednesday "represent a continuation of our communications and discussions and dialogue that began in Bonn," he said, referring to a G-20 summit on Feb. 16. when he met with Lavrov. "We also had telephone conversations since that time and as we both have agreed, our lines of communication shall always remain open."
After the U.S. missile strike on the Syrian base, Russia suspended its military communications channel in Syria meant to help U.S. and Russian forces to avoid clashes. While the U.S. and Russia are both fighting ISIS in Syria, Moscow also backs the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who the U.S. has long opposed and who is battling rebels fighting to unseat him.
"Putin is backing a person that’s truly an evil person. I think it’s very bad for Russia."
Lavrov did not adopt Tillerson's conciliatory tone and also appeared to criticize the pace of appointments in the State Department, saying “main positions had not been filled” and it was “not always so easy to have clarity on the current situation and the future.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, said that the level of trust between the U.S. and Moscow had deteriorated further since Trump took office.
"One could say that the level of trust on a working level, especially on the military level, has not improved, but rather has deteriorated," Putin said in an interview with local media released on the Kremlin website.
U.S.-Russia ties hit lows not seen since the Cold War during the administration of Trump's predecessor President Barack Obama, with the U.S. slapping sanctions on Russia after it annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
Putin also described the United States’ NATO allies as "bobbleheads" who were "not analyzing anything that's happening. Where's proof of Syrian forces using chemical weapons? There's none. But there are violations of international laws. That's a clear fact."
In an interview with Fox Business, Trump described Syria's as an "animal."
"Putin is backing a person that’s truly an evil person. I think it’s very bad for Russia," he said. "I think it’s very bad for mankind. I think it’s very bad for this world."
The high-stakes talks between Tillerson and Lavrov come less than a week after the U.S. launched the airstrikes, triggering a further deterioration in ties between the two governments. The White House has accused Russia of trying to "cover up" Assad’s role in the attack.
Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian newswires such claims were nothing but an "information mess." In the same interview he said that calls for the Kremlin to distance itself from Assad were short-sighted and absurd.
Separately and despite the fiery rhetoric from the Kremlin, Peskov told Russian newswires a meeting between Tillerson and Russian President Vladimir Putin was not yet ruled out.
"There is a certain possibility," Peskov told state-run TASS agency. "You know the talks between the Russian foreign minister and the U.S. Secretary of State are currently underway, and if they later decide to report on the results of these talks to the head of state, we will let you know."