Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin discussed paths towards peace in Syria on Tuesday, in the first sign of practical interaction between the American and Russian presidents since Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, visited Moscow last month.
The call, only the second time the two leaders have spoken since Mr Trump took office in January, was the first sign that Moscow and Washington might be acting on Mr Tillerson’s pledge to prevent a further deterioration in their relationship, which hit a recent low after a chemical attack on Syrian civilians last month.
The Kremlin described the conversation as “businesslike and constructive” while the White House said it was “a good one”. It came on the eve of a new round of Russian-organised talks about a Syrian ceasefire in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. The White House added that the leaders had “agreed that the suffering in Syria has gone on for far too long and that all parties must do all they can to end the violence”.
The White House said that Mr Trump and Mr Putin had discussed the creation of safe zones in Syria, which Russian observers expected would be discussed in Astana. It added that the US was sending a representative to the talks, marking the first time Washington would have a meaningful presence at this round of Syrian negotiations.
A US official said Stuart Jones, the acting assistant secretary for near eastern affairs, would attend the talks “as an observer”. The official added that his participation was “indicative of US support for a political resolution to the Syrian crisis”.
Despite suspicion in Washington, and particularly Congress, that Mr Trump would be too friendly towards Moscow, his administration has been a disappointment for the Kremlin. While Mr Trump has largely refrained from criticising Russia and Mr Putin, his cabinet officials and White House aides have adopted a tough stance on Moscow.
Russian officials complain that they have no counterparts in Washington to talk to and that the new administration lacks a clear policy direction. That is partly because the state department has not filled most of the top policy jobs more than three months into the administration.
The Kremlin’s desire to improve its relationship with the US was further thrown into question following the chemical attack on Syrian civilians. Washington blamed the attack on Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president propped up by Moscow’s military intervention in Syria, and responded with a cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base. The US also accused Russia of trying to cover up the fact that the Syrian regime was behind the gas attack.
Following the call on Tuesday, the Kremlin said Mr Trump and Mr Putin had agreed to intensify joint efforts by their foreign ministers to make the Russian-brokered ceasefire regime in Syria more stable and controllable. “The goal is to create the conditions for launching a real settlement process in Syria,” the Kremlin said.
The Kremlin and the White House said the two leaders also discussed North Korea. As Washington urges Beijing to put more economic and diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang to abandon its missile and nuclear programmes, US officials also want Russia to help put more economic pressure on the regime of Kim Jong Un.
Moscow said Mr Trump and Mr Putin had agreed to continue their phone contacts and were in favour of organising a meeting “in connection with the G20 summit” in Hamburg in early July. The Kremlin has long pushed to have a meeting with Mr Trump organised before the G20 summit. This would aim to give the two leaders’ first meeting more weight than would be possible on the summit sidelines.
Additional reporting by Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington