The Cable

Tillerson: Biggest Snag in U.S.-Russia Relations is Ukraine, Not Election Meddling

U.S. ‘badly’ wants to mend fences with Moscow, Secretary of State Tillerson says.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attends a press conference at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Vienna on Dec. 7.
(AFP/APA/Hans Punz/Austria OUT)
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attends a press conference at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Vienna on Dec. 7. (AFP/APA/Hans Punz/Austria OUT)

There’s one thing standing in the way of normal U.S.-Russia relations, says America’s top diplomat: Ukraine.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking in Vienna on Thursday, said President Donald Trump’s administration “badly” wants to repair ties with Moscow, which have sunk to their lowest level since the Cold War. But the biggest roadblock, Tillerson said, is the Kremlin’s ongoing role in the war in Ukraine.

“The issue that stands in the way is Ukraine,” Tillerson said, speaking at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Vienna, where he also met privately with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

“Russia is arming, leading, training, and fighting alongside anti-government forces,” he said, in some of the harshest comments on Russia and Ukraine from any Trump administration official.

Tillerson did not discuss other bilateral sources of tension — including, notably, the unprecedented Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Relations between Moscow and most of the West have been severely strained since early 2014, when Russia threw military support behind separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, sparking fighting that has killed some 10,000 and displaced some 1.7 million so far. In March 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, a part of Ukraine — the first such cross-border land grab in Europe since the bloody wars in the Balkans in the 1990s.

“We can have differences in other arenas, in Syria, we can have differences in other areas but when one country invades another, that is a difference that is hard to look past or reconcile,” Tillerson said. “It stands as the single most difficult obstacle to us re-normalizing a relationship with Russia, which we badly would like to do,” he added.

There is another potential obstacle to normalized ties: the drumbeat of revelations of the Kremlin’s meddling in last year’s U.S. election. That includes organizing the release of hacked material harmful to the campaign of Democrat Hillary Clinton and the creation of fake social media accounts to spread false news stories that sowed division in the United States.

Most recently, Trump’s disgraced former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn pleaded guilty last week to lying to FBI agents about his efforts to carry out freelance diplomacy with Russia as a private citizen during the presidential transition.

Tillerson has said for months that normalizing relations with Russia has been one of Trump’s top foreign-policy priorities. He has broached the topic of Russian election interference, but not with the rhetoric he leveled against Moscow on Ukraine.

“There is clear evidence of Russia meddling in democratic elections in the U.S. and Europe,” Tillerson said said at a speech in Washington on Nov. 28. “We, together with our friends in Europe, recognize the active threat of a recently resurgent Russia.” Trump, for his part, has repeatedly contradicted U.S. intelligence agencies to belittle their conclusions that Russia interfered in the election.

Tillerson was in Vienna during a five-day trip through Europe, which includes stops in Brussels, Vienna, and Paris. Throughout, he has had to grapple with growing frustration from European allies over Trump’s handling of foreign-policy issues, including the diplomatic fallout from Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He is also dogged by continual rumors that Trump is preparing to fire him.

Tillerson said those rumors keep cropping up every six weeks. “You all need to get some new sources,” he told reporters when asked about the issue on Wednesday. “Your story keeps being wrong.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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