Putin and Trump are taking part in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) international summit, hosted by Vietnam on November 10-11. The Kremlin and the White House sent conflicting reports on a possible meeting between the two leaders, before finally signaling that it will not happen within the official format.
However, even before some clarity on the issue emerged, Tillerson questioned the very necessity of the Russian and US presidents meeting at present. During a press briefing in Beijing on Thursday, he said that “a formal bilat [bilateral meeting]” at the summit had never been agreed on though the presidents could talk as “some kind of a pull-aside.”
“The question is whether we've got sufficient substance,” Tillerson told reporters. "And we have been in contact with [the Russians], and the view has been if the two leaders are going to meet, is there something sufficiently substantive to talk about that would warrant a formal meeting?”
Answering journalists’ questions, he noted however that Russia and the US share “a significant effort in the Middle East and in Ukraine,” but the countries need to achieve considerable progress on the issues to make the leaders’ meeting useful.
“And we'd like to know, if the two heads of state are going to meet, is there something we can point to that's useful to meet. Otherwise, we'll just keep working it,” Tillerson stated.
The White House said on Friday that the official meeting will not happen due to “scheduling conflicts,” while Moscow said that the leaders will meet “one way or another.”
The uncertainty about the meeting irritated Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who suggested journalists press the American side on the comments.
“We have heard about US President Trump’s wish to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which was expressed by Trump himself,” Lavrov said in Friday. “I don’t know what his pen-pushers are saying, ask them.”
Trump told Fox News last week that he may meet Putin during his Asian tour as the Russian leader is “very important” in helping with Syria and North Korea.
“And, again – Putin is very important because they can help us with North Korea. They can help us with Syria. We have to talk about Ukraine,” Trump said.
While it is currently unclear when Trump and Putin will have another opportunity to speak face-to-face, their first-ever meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg last July was described as productive and welcomed by both sides. As a result of that meeting, Russia and the US reached a “breakthrough” ceasefire deal on Syria, which was announced shortly after the presidents’ talks.
Tillerson was optimistic about Russian-US cooperation on the Syrian issue following the presidents’ meeting in July. "I think this is our first indication of the US and Russia being able to work together in Syria, and as a result of that we had a very lengthy discussion regarding other areas in Syria that we can continue to work together on to de-escalate the areas," he said.
Russian-American relations are currently at their lowest point since the Cold War. In July, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called on Moscow and Washington to restore trust because the world is “tired of the tension.”