Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Sunday that relations between the U.S. and Russia will be strained as long as Moscow keeps supporting separatist forces in Ukraine and holds on to territory it has seized from its neighbor.
Following a meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Tillerson told reporters the Trump administration will keep sanctions against Russia in place until Ukraine regains the breakaway eastern provinces controlled by ethnic Russian rebels, which he called Moscow’s “proxies” in the Donbass region.
“I have been very clear in my discussions with Russian leadership, on more than one occasion, that it is necessary for Russia to take the first steps to de-escalate the situation in the eastern part of Ukraine,” Tillerson said in a joint news conference with Poroshenko.
The Obama administration hit Russia with a series of military, financial and energy-related sanctions in 2014, initially for Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula and then for its support of Russian separatists in Donbass. Contrary to concern in Washington that President Donald Trump would unilaterally lift some of the sanctions to appease Russian President Vladimir Putin, the administration has thus far held the line on existing punitive measures. (RELATED: Trump: No Change To Russia Sanctions Until Progress in Ukraine, Syria)
Tillerson did not mention Crimea during the Sunday press conference, but he did suggest that Russia’s annexation of the peninsula is still a major point of contention in the ongoing diplomatic talks on sanctions, reports the Washington Post.
“The U.S. and EU sanctions on Russia will remain in place until Moscow reverses the actions that triggered these particular sanctions,” the secretary of state said.
Tillerson’s support for restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity came as a welcome relief to officials in Kiev, who feared the Trump administration would look the other way on Russian intervention in order to negotiate a deal with Moscow over the crisis in Syria. Poroshenko said he was “extremely satisfied with the level of cooperation” between his government and Washington.
“In today’s visit we see a powerful signal of U.S. support in our common fight for democratic values, for freedom and democracy,” the Ukrainian president told reporters.
Sunday’s meeting followed the appointment Friday of Kurt Volker as U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, a choice that suggests to Kiev the Trump administration intends to take a firm hand with Russia in future negotiations.
Volker, a career diplomat and former ambassador to NATO, is widely seen as a Russia hawk and has called for the U.S. to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) was once again doing his very best to undermine the Trump administration and give aid to the Democrats.
Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain said Sunday he occasionally regrets voting for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and argued further that Tillerson does not hold to the same American values.
In an interview on CBS Sunday, McCain said that he sometimes regrets backing Tillerson.
“Sometimes I do,” McCain said. “But, I’m still torn by the fact that the American people chose this president, and he ought to be able to have this team.”
During the interview, John Dickerson, host of “Face the Nation,” played a clip of Tillerson musing to reporters Friday after President Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin that the U.S., unlike Russia, may have the wrong approach to Syria.
“And I would tell you that, by and large, our objectives are exactly the same,” Tillerson said. “How we get there, we each have a view. But there’s a lot more commonality to that than there are differences. So we want to build on the commonality, and we spent a lot of time talking about next steps. And then where there’s differences, we have more work to get together and understand. Maybe they’ve got the right approach, and we’ve got the wrong approach.”
McCain expressed irritation over Tillerson’s statement and emphasized the barbarity of the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which he learned about in part based on his conversations with the White Helmets, a large group of Syrians engaged in humanitarian action. McCain also argued that Tillerson’s comments place him far outside the Republican tradition of President Ronald Reagan.
The Assad regime has accused the White Helmets of having ties to al-Qaida.
“Look, I agonized over voting for or against Tillerson for secretary of state,” McCain said. “Not that I didn’t admire his success and all the great things he’s done. But the things that he’d said in the past. He has divorced a fundamental of American democracy. The reason why we are the shining city on the hill, as Ronald Reagan used to say, is because they look up to us because of our principles, and our beliefs, and our advocacy of freedom for freedom. That’s what America’s supposed to be all about. Not whether they’re right and we’re wrong.”