Tillerson promises conditional US co-operation with Russia

Donald Trump’s secretary of state says Russia expected to honour Ukraine peace deal

Rex Tillerson and Sergei Lavrov: The US secretary of state and his Russian counterpart agreed to fight terrorism in Syria and other other countries where “terrorism has put down roots”. Photograph: EPA/Friedemann Vogel

Rex Tillerson and Sergei Lavrov: The US secretary of state and his Russian counterpart agreed to fight terrorism in Syria and other other countries where “terrorism has put down roots”. Photograph: EPA/Friedemann Vogel

 

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson has said the Trump administration is open to close co-operation with Russia if it abides by the terms of the Minsk peace deal on Ukraine.

Thursday’s first high-level contact between the US and Russia since Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 20th was overshadowed by an escalating Washington row over premature Trump camp contacts with Moscow.

“As we search for new common ground, we expect Russia to honour its commitments to the Minsk agreements and work to de-escalate the violence in the Ukraine,” said Mr Tillerson, who had close contacts with Russian president Vladimir Putin during his time at the oil giant ExxonMobil.

He was speaking after a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on the sidelines of a G20 foreign ministers meeting in Bonn, the former West German capital.

Since taking office, Mr Trump has repeated campaign promises to pursue closer ties with Moscow, despite controversies over his administration’s Russian contacts and Moscow’s backing for separatists involved in the Ukrainian conflict that blew up in 2014.

Remained guarded

Though there is no shortage of things to talk about with Russia, from Ukraine and Syria to alleged Russian interference in the US presidential election, Mr Tillerson remained guarded in his Thursday appearance and gave little away on what to expect from Trump era foreign policy.

After the departure of three Trump aides over links to Russia, including national security adviser Mike Flynn earlier this week, Mr Tillerson declined to speak to journalists travelling with him to Germany, nor did he take their questions after meetings in Bonn.

Reading a short statement, the secretary of state said the US would “consider working with Russia where we can find areas of practical cooperation that will benefit the American people”.

“Where we do not see eye to eye, the United States will stand up for the interests and values of America and her allies,” he added.

Three years after Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, sparking a war that has killed thousands, the 2015 Minsk agreement intended to ease the conflict remains incomplete.

Mr Lavrov, asked if the escalating chaos in Washington and the departure of Mr Flynn was of concern to Moscow, replied: “You should know we do not interfere in the domestic matters of other countries.”

Instead, he said their meeting was about “establishing the parameters of our future work”.

The two men agreed to co-operate in the fight against terrorism in Syria as well as other countries in the Middle East where “terrorism has put down roots”.

“It is clear that we cannot solve all problems, but we have a common understanding that we have to make progress on areas where our interests overlap,” said the Russian chief diplomat. He said the two leaders had agreed that a meeting between the US and Russian president would happen at the earliest opportunity.

Awkward moments

The talks, on the sidelines of the G20 gathering of foreign ministers, were marred by awkward moments, such as US officials rushing pool reporters from the room before the two men made traditional introductory remarks.

“Why did they shush them out?” Mr Lavrov was heard to ask, according to the New York Times.

Mr Tillerson’s debut on the international stage overshadowed that of his German host, foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel.

Mr Gabriel, Germany’s departing Social Democrat (SPD) leader and a recent arrival from the economic ministry, also held talks with Mr Lavrov. German officials said the two had a long and productive discussion on bilateral relations.

Mr Gabriel urged his Russian counterpart to use his influence on eastern Ukrainian separatists to implement a full ceasefire in the region and move on implementation of the Minsk agreement.

The German foreign minister said he remained optimistic that normal diplomatic ties could be established between the US and Russia. In a nod to Mr Trump’s “America first” strategy, he added: “No country in the world can solve the big international problems alone.”

Meanwhile, Mr Tillerson joined South Korea and Japan in condemning North Korea’s latest missile test on Sunday, a move they said would only encourage enhanced security co-operation between the three countries.

In a joint statement, Mr Tillerson said the US “remains steadfast” in its defence commitments to its two Asian allies, “backed by the full range of its nuclear and conventional defence capabilities”.