Tue Apr 11, 2017 7:26AM
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov

The Kremlin says it has scheduled no meeting between President Vladimir Putin and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during the latter’s upcoming visit to Moscow.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call on Monday that “no meeting with Tillerson” was “in the president’s diary.”

Tillerson is due to arrive in the Russian capital on Wednesday, where he is expected to have a tense meeting now only with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

While Peskov did not say why Putin would not be receiving Tillerson, a recent US missile strike on a Syrian airbase is highly suspected of being the reason why.

US President Donald Trump, who during his presidential campaign and early in his presidency strongly advocated close engagement with Russia on Syria, ordered the missile strike on the Syrian airbase on Friday, angering Moscow.

Russia is a main ally of the Syrian government, and Russian forces were based at the site hit in the US strike. US officials have said the Russians were given notice in advance of the strike.

While Russia did not employ its sophisticated missile defense systems installed in Syria during the US strike, possibly to avoid direct confrontation, it has been strongly angered by the attack and has said the prospects for a potential enhancement of its ties with the US have been seriously harmed.

In his Monday briefing of reporters, the Kremlin spokesman referred to the US strike and said it was indicative of Washington’s total unwillingness to cooperate on Syria.

Trump has been silent on relations with Russia since the missile strike.

The US has said the strike was carried out in retaliation for an alleged Syrian chemical attack. Moscow and Damascus have both denied that any such attack was carried out.

Peskov also slammed renewed calls by the US for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as unhelpful and insisted that “there is no other alternative” to peace talks for Syria.

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Reacting to press reports that Tillerson would use his Moscow visit to press the Kremlin to back away from supporting Assad, Peskov hinted that that would be a non-starter.

“Returning to pseudo-attempts to resolve the crisis by repeating mantras that Assad must step down cannot help sort things out,” he said.

Russia, along with Iran, is providing advisory military assistance to Damascus. Moscow is also carrying out an aerial campaign against extremist militants in Syria.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (photo by AFP)

The Russian snub would make Tillerson “the first [US] secretary of state not to meet with the Russian president or top Soviet leader in his inaugural trip to Moscow in office, according to State Department records and news reports,” The New York Times has said.

Putin often received Tillerson’s predecessor, John Kerry, during his Moscow visits and also met with Tillerson himself when the now-top American diplomat was the executive of the oil giant Exxon Mobil. Putin even personally awarded Tillerson a top Russian state award — the Order of Friendship — in 2013.

It was thus expected that Tillerson would meet Putin in his first trip to Russia as secretary of state.

But even if the US strike had not happened, Tillerson’s visit would have been dominated by thorny issues. Russia and the US have been at odds over such issues as alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, Washington’s claim that Russia is violating a key arms control treaty, and the Ukrainian conflict, among other things.