Russian President Vladimir Putin will not meet with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson when the former Exxon Mobil CEO visits Moscow on Wednesday, a move that could signal tensions between Washington and the Kremlin.
The Kremlins decision to avoid the meeting is notable. In 2013, Putin personally awarded Tillerson the Order of Friendship- which is a top state award in the country, Reuters reported.
A Russian spokesman did not indicate why the two will not meet.
Tillerson is emerging from the shadows with a leading public role in shaping and explaining the Trump administrations missile strikes in Syria. And, hes set for an even higher-profile mission, heading to Moscow under the twin clouds of Russias U.S. election meddling and its possible support for a Syrian chemical weapons attack.
Tillerson was visible during last weeks announcement of the response to the gruesome chemical attack, fielding questions from reporters on and off camera, and then captured in an official White House photo seated next to President Trump as they heard the result of the 59 cruise missiles that struck a Syrian military base.
Tillerson was a prominent fixture during the most important foreign policy period in Trumps young presidency: a two-day summit with Chinese President Xi that coincided with the strikes against Syria. He was by Trumps side during his meetings with Xi and spoke publicly multiple times to address both issues.
It was Tillerson who delivered the Trump administrations first blistering condemnation of Russia in the hours after the strikes. Standing in a cramped conference room alongside national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Tillerson said Moscow had failed to live up to its obligations under a 2013 agreement to strip Syria of its chemical weapons stockpiles. Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has simply been incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement, he said.
On Sunday, he made his first network television interview appearances. In one interview, Tillerson said he sees no reason for retaliation from Russia for the U.S. missile strikes. Russia maintains a close political and military alliance with President Bashar Assads government and has been accused of supporting its attacks against Syrians opposed to Assads rule something Moscow adamantly denies.
Tillerson said on CBS Face the Nation that Russians were not targeted by the strikes. He also said the top U.S. priority in the region hadnt changed and remained the defeat of Islamic State militants.
Then he headed to Europe to gather with the foreign ministers of the other major industrialized nations before venturing on eastward to become the first Trump Cabinet member to visit Moscow and possibly meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The criticism from the foreign policy establishments left and right that has dogged Tillersons tenure is dying down.
Tillerson had faced questions about whether he understood that his new position meant he was now the face of the United States to the world, that he had to answer no longer to a small group of top shareholders but to more than 320 million Americans.
The secretary of state must be the spokesman for American foreign policy, said Eliot Cohen, a senior State Department official during George W. Bushs presidency. This is the administrations first crisis but it wont be their last by a long shot, so hes going to have to get used to this.
Joining Trump at the presidents Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, Tillerson was supposed to focus on the informal summit with Xi. Instead, he was thrust to the forefront after photos of the bodies piled in heaps in Idlib, Syria, dramatically altered the agenda.
Only a week earlier, Tillerson had alarmed U.S. allies by indicating the U.S. was no longer interested in pushing for Assads removal from power.
In the hours leading up to Trumps decision to order the strikes, Tillerson was among the most forward-leaning of Trumps top aides in suggesting the U.S. would deliver an appropriate response. He challenged Russia publicly in a way Trump appeared scrupulously to avoid and said of Assad early Thursday: It would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people.
After the cruise missiles crashed down in Syria, Tillerson was calm and commanding in a question-and-answer session with journalists.
Cohen, a conservative critic of Trumps foreign policy who has chided Tillerson for his reticence, said he saw Tillerson growing into the job. I suspect youll see more of him as he grows more comfortable in dealing with the press and in his relationship with the president and the administrations national security team, Cohen said.
Beyond Syria are disputes over Russias 2014 annexation of Ukraines Crimea region and support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
At the same time, Tillerson carries to Moscow the weight of FBI and congressional investigations into Russias interference in last years presidential election. The Trump campaigns possible ties to the presumed Russian meddlers are also under scrutiny.
This is going to be Tillersons biggest test to date, said Julianne Smith, a National Security Council and Defense Department official under President Obama.
The Associated Press contributed to this report