By and David Filipov,

MOSCOW — Tense comments and warnings from Russia set the tone Wednesday for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as he attempts to persuade Moscow to abandon its support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

In the opening remarks ahead his meeting with Tillerson, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the United States not to attempt another attack against Syria after last week’s missile strike plunged U.S.-Russian relations to one of the lowest points since the Cold War.

“I will be frank, we have a lot of questions regarding very ambiguous and contradictory ideas on the international agenda in Washington,” Lavrov said after shaking hands with Tillerson and sitting down at a conference table to welcome him to Moscow, a rite typically marked by polite pleasantries. “And I’d like to say, apart from words, we saw some very alarming actions regarding the unlawful attack in Syria.”

“It is of paramount importance to avert risks and recurrences of such actions in the future,” he added.

Tillerson, looking directly as his counterpart while speaking, acknowledged what he called “sharp differences” between the two countries. He said he hoped they could candidly discuss ways to narrow them going forward. He also said it was important the two governments maintain open lines of communication.

But Moscow appeared unready to budge on the primary goal of Tillerson’s mission — persuading Russia to help remove Assad from power.

In what was effectively an ultimatum, Tillerson on Tuesday said that Moscow must calculate the costs of remaining an ally of Assad, the Iranians and Lebanon’s Shiite militia Hezbollah. Russia’s Foreign Ministry dismissed Tillerson’s remarks Wednesday.

“I believe everyone realized a long time ago that there is no use in giving us ultimatums. This is simply counterproductive,” ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in remarks aired on the Internet news site TVDozhd.

The Trump administration on Tuesday revealed intelligence that it said proved that Syrian forces had carried out the deadly chemical weapons attack in the northern Idlib province that led to the U.S. missile strike. Washington further claimed that Russia had advance knowledge of the chemical strike — an assertion that Moscow denied.

[U.S. reveals intelligence disputing Russian claim about Syria chemical attack]

“We reject any accusations to this effect and would like to remind everyone that Russia has been the only country to demand an unbiased international inquiry into the circumstances of the use of toxic chemicals near Idlib from the very start,” Peskov said.

In an interview broadcast Wednesday, President Trump sharply dialed up the rhetoric on Syria, calling Assad “an animal” whose regime was saved by Russian intervention.

“And frankly, Putin is backing a person that’s truly an evil person. And I think it’s very bad for Russia,” Trump said on the Fox Business Network’s “Mornings with Maria” show. “I think it’s very bad for mankind. It’s very bad for this world.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in excerpts of an interview to be broadcast in full on Russian television later Wednesday, argued that there is no proof Assad’s forces carried out the attack and called the U.S. strikes a breach of international law.

Putin also said that confidence in an improvement in U.S.-Russian relations was lower now than it had been under the Obama administration.

“The level of trust at the working level, especially at the military level, has not improved, but most likely has been degraded,” Putin said remarks on the Mir television channel.

In his opening remarks, Lavrov also took a subtle dig at the Trump administration, saying it was difficult to get clarity on U.S. stances since there are so many vacancies in top positions at the State Department.

Tillerson and Lavrov talked for more than two hours before breaking for lunch. They are scheduled to hold a joint news conference amid growing indications that Tillerson might meet personally with Putin.

The U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Tefft, has said that Tillerson expects to meet Putin on Wednesday. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov too suggested that such a meeting was possible.

“You know that negotiations between the foreign minister and the secretary of state are underway, and if it is found reasonable to report the outcome of the negotiations to the president today, we will inform you in due course,” the Interfax news agency quoted Peskov as saying.

Putin derisively compared the current situation in Syria to the buildup to the war in Iraq in 2003, when U.S. officials insisted that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction over the objections of international investigators.

Moscow wants the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to investigate the use of chemical weapons in Idlib, one of the last strongholds for beleaguered rebel factions fighting Assad’s government.

Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.

Read more:

Where are Russian and U.S. troops in Syria

Expectations of a new U.S.-Russian relationship were tanking even before missile strike

U.S. strikes against Syria prompt both praise and condemnation

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