(CNSNews.com) – The level of trust between Russia and the United States has not improved since President Trump took office, but has “probably worsened,” President Vladimir Putin has said in a new interview.
Asked by the Mir broadcasting network whether relations under Trump had deteriorated compared to the situation under President Obama, Putin replied, “We could say that at the working level, the degree of trust has dropped, especially in the military area. It has not improved and has probably worsened.”
The Kremlin released a translation of the interview on Wednesday.
Putin’s pessimistic assessment comes amid tensions over last week’s U.S. cruise missile strike against an Assad regime airbase linked by the Pentagon to an April 4 chemical weapons attack in northwestern Syria.
And it comes less than four months into an administration of a president whose critics continue to accuse of inappropriate associations with Moscow, as well as of collusion between members of his campaign and the Russians in efforts to interfere with the 2016 election.
During the Republican primaries and the general election campaign, Trump referred to Putin in cordial terms, drawing flak from his rivals when he said he would “get along” with the Russian leader.
Putin then described Trump as “a very bright personality” and “a talented person,” in response to which the GOP candidate said it was “a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.”
Later, the U.S. intelligence community accused Russia of being behind the theft and release by Wikileaks of thousands of emails linked to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Weeks before the election, however, Putin dismissed as “nonsense and lunacy” claims that he favored Trump in the race, saying they were an attempt to influence public opinion in order to help Clinton.
Putin’s ‘versions’ of the chemical weapons attack
In the interview with Mir – a network focused on the former Soviet republics known collectively as the Commonwealth of Independent States – Putin reiterated his stance that the Assad regime was not responsible for the chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhun.
White House officials have stated with high confidence that they believe at least one munition containing sarin, a lethal nerve agent, was dropped from a regime Sukhoi Su-22 aircraft during the attack. At least 70 people, including children, died as a result.
“What we do know – and we have very firm and high confidence in our conclusion – is that the attack was planned and carried out by the regime forces at the direction of Bashar al-Assad,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said during a visit to Moscow on Wednesday.
Putin gave not one but two alternative scenarios.
“There are several version[s], two of which I consider as priorities,” he said. “The first is that the Syrian bombs hit a secret chemical weapons facility. This is quite possible, considering that the terrorists have used chemical weapons many times, and nobody has contested this fact.”
“They have used these weapons in Iraq against the international coalition and the Iraqi army,” Putin continued. “These attacks have been recorded, but they are hushed up. There is no outrage over them, although everyone agreed that the terrorists have used toxic agents. This means that the terrorists have these weapons, so why can’t they have them in Syria? They are all together in this.”
Putin’s “second version” was that the Khan Sheikhun attack was a false flag operation.
“According to the second version, it was a staged provocation, a deliberate incident designed to create a pretext for increasing pressure on the legitimate Syrian authorities,” he said.
Putin added that the incident “must be investigated.”
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the appropriate body for such an investigation, in fact announced it planned to do just that within hours of the Khan Sheikhun attack.
In an update three days later, it said it had initiated contact with the Syrian authorities, and requested all parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention with information to share regarding the incident, to do so.
While Putin said the theory about a rebel chemical weapons storage facility having been hit was “quite possible,” the Russian military earlier declared that to be a fact, as did Russia’s representative to the U.N. during a Security Council meeting.
ISIS, the jihadist group fighting in Syria and Iraq, has been accused of using a chemical weapon – sulphur mustard gas – on at least one occasion, north of Aleppo in Syria in August 2015, according to OPCW investigations.
ISIS has also been accused of using a chemical agent, most likely chlorine, against Kurdish forces in Iraq in July 2015. The International Committee of the Red Cross last month reported that a “blistering chemical agent” (such as sulphur mustard gas) had been used in fighting around Mosul, Iraq, although the ICRC did not point to a culprit.
The toxic agent used in Khan Sheikhun, according to the Trump administration, was sarin.
Sarin was also used in an August 2013 attack in Ghouta, near Damascus. More than 1,400 people were killed in that incident, which the West blamed on the Assad regime. Russia maintains that “militants,” not the Assad regime, was responsible for the Ghouta attack as well.