Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a visit to Moscow on Wednesday amid heightened tensions over a U.S. airstrike last week on a Syrian air base.
The surprise sit-down comes one day after Kremlin officials said the top American diplomat would not meet with the Russian leader during his first official trip to Moscow.
The meeting is an opportunity for the leaders to confront one another over President Trump’s decision to launch a missile strike against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces in retaliation for what the White House said was a chemical weapons attack he carried out on his own citizens.
Top U.S. officials, including Tillerson, have pressured Putin to drop his support for Assad in the aftermath of the chemical attack.
Putin has publicly raised doubts about whether Assad was responsible for the strike, which killed dozens, and even suggested the U.S. might fake a subsequent gas attack and blame it on the Syrian leader.
That prompted the White House to accuse Moscow of attempting to “cover up” Assad’s involvement in the strike in an effort to protect its main ally in the Middle East.
One White House official on Tuesday questioned how Russia would not have advance knowledge of the attack, given that their military had a presence at the base where it originated. The Kremlin has denied it knew of the strike before it happened.
The missile attack — and the tensions with Russia — are a sharp turnabout for Trump, who expressed a desire to forge a better relationship with Putin during the campaign. He also repeatedly urged former President Obama against military intervention in Syria.
The Russian leader complained Wednesday about the state of U.S.-Russia relations in the wake of the attack.
"One could say that the level of trust on a working level, especially on the military level, has not improved but has rather deteriorated," Putin said in an interview on Russian television, according to Reuters.
The interview aired just after Tillerson met with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, to kick off their talks.
Tillerson met with Putin several times as chief executive of Exxon Mobil. The Russian leader awarded Tillerson his country’s top honor for foreign nationals, the Order of Friendship, in 2013.
It was believed the secretary of State’s relationship with Putin would help Trump improve relations with Russia.