There is a 'low level of trust' between US and Russia, admits Rex Tillerson as countries agree joint Syria investigation

Tom Powell

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said there is a "low level of trust" between his country and Russia following a meeting with Vladimir Putin.

It came as the two nations agreed to co-operate on an international investigation into the Syrian chemical weapons attack last week that prompted retaliatory American missile strikes.

Washington blames Russia's ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Moscow said Syrian rebels are responsible.

After a day of discussions with US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said the former Cold War foes agreed a UN probe of events in northern Syria on April 4 was necessary.

Handshake: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (EPA)

More than 80 people were killed in what the US has described as a nerve gas attack that Assad's forces undoubtedly carried out.

Russia said rebels dispersed whatever chemical agent was found, which the Trump administration calls a disinformation campaign.

The news conference came after Russian president Putin met the top American diplomat for almost two hours to see if they could rescue relations between the world's mightiest military powers.

Russia's alleged meddling in the US presidential election also hovered over the first face-to-face encounter between Mr Putin and a Trump administration Cabinet member.

"There is a low level of trust between our two countries," Mr Tillerson said.

He said working groups would be established to improve US-Russian ties and identify problems. He said the two sides would also discuss disagreements on Syria and how to end the country's six-year civil war.

The most immediate dispute concerned culpability for the chemical weapons, though broader disagreements over everything from Ukraine to Russia's support for once-fringe candidates in European elections are among other sore points.

Steeped in geopolitical intrigue, the meeting between Mr Putin and Mr Tillerson was not formally confirmed until the last minute, following days of speculation about whether the Russian would refuse to grant the former oil executive an audience.

Mr Putin's decision to host Mr Tillerson signalled Moscow's intent to maintain communication with the US even as the countries bash each other publicly in louder and louder tones.

The men know each other well from Mr Tillerson's days as Exxon Mobil CEO. Mr Putin had even granted Mr Tillerson a friendship honour.