WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson is taking a hard line against Russia on the eve of his first diplomatic trip to Moscow, calling the country “incompetent” for allowing Syria to hold on to chemical weapons and accusing Russia of trying to influence elections in Europe using the same methods it employed in the United States.
Mr. Tillerson’s comments, made in interviews aired on Sunday, were far more critical of the Russian government than any public statements by President Trump, who has been an increasingly lonely voice for better ties with Russia. They seemed to reflect Mr. Tillerson’s expectation, which he has expressed privately to aides and members of Congress, that the American relationship with Russia is already reverting to the norm: one of friction, distrust and mutual efforts to undermine each other’s reach.
“This was inevitable,” said Philip H. Gordon, a former Middle East coordinator at the National Security Council who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Trump’s early let’s-be-friends initiative was incompatible with our interests, and you knew it would end with tears.” The Russians’ behavior has not changed, Mr. Gordon added, and they “are using every means they can — cyber, economic arrangements, intimidation — to reinsert themselves around the Middle East and Europe.”
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Mr. Tillerson made it clear he agreed with that view, sweeping past Mr. Trump’s repeated insistence, despite the conclusion of American intelligence agencies, that there was no evidence of Russian interference in last year’s election. The meddling “undermines any hope of improving relations,” Mr. Tillerson said on ABC’s “This Week,” “not just with the United States, but it’s pretty evident that they’re taking similar tactics into electoral processes throughout Europe.”
Such tough talk will make Mr. Tillerson’s job even harder when he arrives Tuesday for the first visit to Moscow by a top Trump administration official. While he must offer sharp warnings to Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov and to President Vladimir V. Putin, if they meet — it was unclear whether such a meeting had been quietly arranged — he must also find a way forward with them to counter the Islamic State and then deal with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
Yet as Mr. Tillerson arrived in Italy to meet with foreign ministers before going to Moscow, the administration was sending conflicting signals about its policy on Syria and the extent to which it would hold the country’s patron Russia responsible for continued violence.
Mr. Tillerson and the new national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” said the American attack last week on a Syrian air base was intended solely to halt future chemical attacks, not to destabilize or overthrow the Assad government.
“What’s significant about the strike is not that it was meant to take out the Syrian regime’s capacity or ability to commit mass murder of its own people,” said General McMaster, who is new to the Sunday television circuit, “but it was to be a very strong signal to Assad and his sponsors that the United States cannot stand idly by as he is murdering innocent civilians.”
Neither man would commit to further military action in Syria even if Mr. Assad continued to kill civilians in large numbers by conventional means rather than with the chemical weapons that prompted Mr. Trump to reverse his stance on intervention. Instead, Mr. Tillerson said that defeating the Islamic State remained the first priority. Only then, he said, would he turn to a cease-fire process leading to elections, so that “the Syrian people can decide the fate of Assad.”
But the American ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, suggested that such a process was doomed as long as Mr. Assad was in power. “We know there’s not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime,” she said on CNN. “If you look at his actions, if you look at the situation, it’s going to be hard to see a government that’s peaceful and stable with Assad.”
That statement stood in contrast not only to Mr. Tillerson’s comments but also to Ms. Haley’s own remarks a week ago — before Mr. Assad carried out his latest chemical weapons attack on civilians — in which she insisted that his departure from office was not a diplomatic priority for the United States.
Still, the overall tone of suspicion and condemnation of Russia’s actions in Syria indicated that Mr. Trump’s top national security advisers were nudging him back to a more traditional Russia policy. During his days as the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, Mr. Tillerson received a friendship award from Mr. Putin, and he is aware of the suspicions surrounding those ties and has gone the furthest in the administration in separating himself from the Russian leader.
The challenges have only multiplied in recent days. The Russians, angry about the attack on the air base, have threatened to cut off a communication line that the American and Russian militaries have used to notify each other about air operations in Syria. And the attack has forced Mr. Putin into a tighter relationship with Mr. Assad, perhaps tighter than the Russian leader wants.
Ms. Haley, who, like Mr. Tillerson, is new to diplomacy, has also apparently concluded that a hard line toward Russia is the safest course. The contrast between her remarks and Mr. Trump’s warm words for Mr. Putin on the campaign trail — as well as his refusal to acknowledge Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election — has been striking.
The Trump administration’s Syria policy has been difficult to parse. Mr. Tillerson, in his first television appearances since taking office, seemed to describe two different strategic objectives: halting chemical attacks and ultimately negotiating a cease-fire. But he made it clear that he had no intention of backing a military intervention that would overthrow Mr. Assad. That suggested that as long as the dictator used conventional means to kill his own people — barrel bombs instead of sarin gas — the United States would keep its distance.
“I think what the United States and our allies want to do is to enable the Syrian people to make that determination” about Mr. Assad’s fate, Mr. Tillerson said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” — a line that was often used by his predecessor in the Obama administration, John Kerry. “You know, we’ve seen what violent regime change looks like in Libya and the kind of chaos that can be unleashed.”
Those remarks indicate that Mr. Trump does not yet have a grander strategy for Syria. Longtime Middle East experts said that might be a good thing.
“I for one am glad he does not have a fully thought-through strategy on Syria, because if he did, he’d probably get it wrong,” said Ryan C. Crocker, perhaps the most experienced American career diplomat in the region, and dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.
“There are too many variables, too many unknowns,” he said, among them the expectation of American allies, including Saudi Arabia, that Mr. Trump should emphasize getting rid of Mr. Assad over defeating the Islamic State.
Noah Weiland contributed reporting from Washington, and Somini Sengupta from New York.