MOSCOW — After Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson waited for much of the day, wondering whether he would get to meet with President Vladimir V. Putin, the two men sat down at the Kremlin late Wednesday afternoon in the first face-to-face meeting between the Russian leader and a top official in the Trump administration.

Relations between the United States and Russia have grown so tense that it was unclear whether Mr. Putin would agree to see Mr. Tillerson, a man he once gave a medal of friendship.

In the 24 hours before Mr. Tillerson landed, the White House accused Mr. Putin’s government of covering up evidence that the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad was 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 his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. 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.

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