MOSCOW — Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson met with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for nearly two hours Wednesday, but the two men appeared unable to agree on the facts involving the deadly chemical weapons assault on Syrian civilians or Russian interference in the American election — much less move toward an improvement in basic relations.
“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, after the first face-to-face meetings between Russian leaders and a top emissary of the Trump administration.
“The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship,” Mr. Tillerson said.
Both he and Mr. Lavrov said a range of issues were discussed — most notably the crises in Syria, North Korea and Ukraine — and that both sides had agreed to establish a working group to examine, as Mr. Lavrov said, “the irritants” in relations between the United States and Russia.
Mr. Tillerson reiterated the American view that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Russia’s chief Middle East ally, was responsible for the chemical weapons assault in northern Syria on April 4 that left more than 80 people dead, sickened hundreds and outraged the world.
Mr. Lavrov reiterated the Russian view that the facts about the chemical weapons attack had yet to be determined, and denounced what he described as the “media hysteria” surrounding the assault.
Asked about President Trump’s description of Mr. Assad as an “animal,” Mr. Tillerson said that characterization “is one that Assad has brought upon himself.”
Mr. Tillerson said Russian interference in the presidential election was a settled fact. In response, Mr. Lavrov gave what amounted to a long lecture on what he described as an extensive list of American efforts to achieve “regime change” around the world, from Serbia to Iraq to Libya. He described them all as failures — an implicit warning against any efforts to achieve the same end in Syria.
For hours after Mr. Tillerson’s arrival in Moscow, it was unclear whether Mr. Putin would even meet with him because of the tense state of relations, which has have worsened just in the past few weeks.
Their meeting lasted almost two hours and ended just before 8 p.m. local time.
In the 24 hours before Mr. Tillerson landed in Moscow, the White House accused Mr. Putin’s government of covering up evidence that Mr. Assad had been responsible for sarin gas attacks on its own people, launched from a base where Russian troops are operating.
Mr. Putin shot back that the charge was fabricated and accused the administration of President Trump, who American intelligence agencies believe benefited from Russian cyberattacks intended to embarrass his Democratic rival during the election campaign, of fabricating the evidence to create a fake confrontation.
“This reminds me very much of the events of 2003, when U.S. representatives in the Security Council showed alleged chemical weapons discovered in Iraq,” Mr. Putin said, referring to an intelligence failure that Mr. Trump has also cited in recent months. “The exact same thing is happening now,” he charged.
He quoted two Russian writers, Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov, authors of the 1928 satire “The 12 Chairs,” and said, “ ‘It’s boring, ladies.’ We have seen this all before.”
But the diplomatic theater playing out in Moscow on a rainy Wednesday morning was far from boring: Mr. Putin, operating on home turf, was looking for any way to shape the narrative of Mr. Tillerson’s first trip here as secretary of state.
The outcome could well decide whether Mr. Trump’s oft-stated desire to remake American relations with Moscow will now disintegrate, just as similar efforts by Barack Obama did early in his presidency.
Russia said earlier this week that Mr. Putin would not meet with Mr. Tillerson, but on Wednesday the Russian leader’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, held out the possibility of a meeting later in the day. Russian leaders have greeted virtually all new secretaries of state since the end of World War II, but Mr. Peskov said any meeting would depend on how Mr. Tillerson’s other talks went.
The drama appeared to be an effort by Mr. Putin to show that he was in control.
Critics of the Trump administration insist that the series of events around the attack in Syria had been meant to distract from the investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Mr. Tillerson, who was recognized with an Order of Friendship medal by the Russian government while he was the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, has insisted on a tough line on Russia, ruling out any early end to sanctions unless the country returns Crimea to Ukraine and ceases meddling elsewhere.
On Syria, Mr. Tillerson delivered what sounded much like an ultimatum to the Russians on Tuesday while talking to reporters at a Group of 7 meeting in Italy.
“I think it is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end,” Mr. Tillerson said, echoing a theme first heard from Mr. Obama in 2011, when the Arab Spring led many to believe the Syrian leader was about to be overthrown.
Mr. Tillerson essentially demanded that Russia make a choice, severing ties with Mr. Assad and working with the United States on a variety of initiatives in the Middle East.
But Mr. Putin and his acolytes in the Russian government see the situation very differently. They regard their military intervention in Syria, which the Obama administration did not see coming, as a tactical success.
They shored up Mr. Assad and made him dependent on Russia’s presence. That, in turn, assured Russia’s continued access to its naval station in Syria, a move that was critical to the country’s efforts to project power in the Middle East.
As Mr. Tillerson entered the foreign ministry here to meet Mr. Lavrov, an experienced and wily veteran of many of Russia’s post-Cold War encounters with Washington, the Russian government released another salvo against American intentions here.
The Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria V. Zakharova, said it was “useless” for Mr. Tillerson to arrive in Moscow with “ultimatums” and suggested that if he wanted any progress, he should start by getting Mr. Trump and his administration on the same page about Syria strategy.
“It is not clear what they will do in Syria and not only there,” she said on Dozhd, Russia’s independent television network. “Nobody understands what they will do in the Middle East because it is a very complicated region, forgive me for saying such a banal thing. Nobody understands what they will do with Iran, what they will do with Afghanistan.”
Then, to suggest this was a symptom of broader disorganization, she added, “Nobody understands what they will do with North Korea.”
Mr. Tillerson had hoped, several weeks ago, to make the battle against the Islamic State a focus of this trip, working with Russia to seal off the last escape routes from Raqqa, in hopes of killing the remainder of the Islamic State force there.
Instead, the chemical attack in Syria — and the investigations into how and how significantly Mr. Putin interfered in the United States presidential election — have overshadowed what Mr. Tillerson has insisted remains the No. 1 priority: defeating the Islamic State.
There was some suggestion by the Russians that Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Tillerson would talk about no-fly zones, one way of keeping Mr. Assad’s air force grounded. But it is unclear how that would work, and the prospect of confrontation between American and Russian forces would be significant as the no-fly zone was enforced.
Meanwhile, Mr. Putin went on Mir TV to suggest two theories about how the sarin gas attack might not have been the responsibility of Mr. Assad. He said that there was evidence, which he did not specify, that the shells hit a bunker of chemical weapons, a view that other Russian officials have expressed previously. The United States rejected this conclusion when it declassified intelligence assessments on Tuesday.
The second theory Mr. Putin offered was that “this was all staged, in other words this was a provocation.” “This was deliberately done to create noise and pretext, for additional pressure on the legitimate Syrian government,” he said. “That’s all. This needs to be checked. Without a check we don’t think it is possible to make any steps against the official Syrian government.”
Mr. Tillerson has all but called that theory fake news.
TRANSCRIPT OF 2012 MEETING BETWEEN TILLERSON AND PUTIN
President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Mr Tillerson, I am very happy to see you.
This is already our second meeting in a short span of time, and there is a good explanation for this: increasingly close relations are being forged between your company and Russian market players.
Just now, you signed documents on working jointly with Rosneft on hard-to-recover oil reserves and the continental shelf. This is the best proof that economic relations between the United States and Russia are continuing to develop.
We very much expect that our collaboration will benefit the global energy market, both companies, and our economies. I think that within the difficult conditions of the world economy, this is a good signal that all the market players in a wide range of economic sectors can feel confident.
ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson: Thank you, Mr President, for those warm remarks and your welcome. I also appreciate very much your attending today the signing of our two agreements.
As you point out, these two agreements represent continued progress in our very broad strategic partnership between Rosneft and ExxonMobil. It is important progress and substantive progress, and I’m pleased that you were here to be part of the signing today, and very much appreciate the strong support and encouragement you have provided to our partnership.
I agree, as you point out, that nothing strengthens relationships between countries better than business enterprise. And these agreements will serve to strengthen our relationship between our two countries and obviously our two companies.
We are very proud of our partnership. We look forward to bringing what we have to offer, our technical expertise to Russia, but also continuing to learn from Rosneft about Russian resources, techniques that are used here that are successful. It will be a very strong partnership.
Vladimir Putin: How do you view cooperation to develop the technological centre in St Petersburg?
Rex Tillerson: Well, I’m very excited about the establishment of the Arctic Research Centre. ExxonMobil has a long history of more than 30 years of research in Arctic technology that we utilised in Alaska, as well as at offshore sites. But we know Rosneft also has years of technological expertise working in Siberia. I have no doubt that putting our two companies together, we are going to develop new approaches and new techniques that are going to allow us to access resources in the Russian Arctic efficiently, safely, with a great deal of care for the environment.