On April 12, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow, where a chemical weapons attack in Syria and North Korea’s nuclear program dominated the conversation. Despite the relevance of these issues, Tillerson should not lose sight of the need for dialogue toward a resolution to the conflict in Ukraine.
The Trump administration’s position on Ukraine has been confusing, at best. Given conflicting statements from Trump officials and the president himself, and the appearance of ties between Trump campaign members and the Russian government, it is not surprising Ukrainians are worried about how the new administration will approach the conflict.
At his news conference with Lavrov, Tillerson avoided using the term “annexation” when discussing Crimea, instead referring to “certain actions.” Similarly concerning was Tillerson’s offhand remark at the G-7 summit in Italy on April 11—less than a day before his meeting with Lavrov—“Why should U.S. taxpayers be interested in Ukraine?” That remark both demonstrates the secretary of state’s inexperience in the deeply scrutinized diplomatic sphere and raises questions about the Trump administration’s current thinking on the Ukraine conflict. Tillerson and Lavrov did not discuss Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia, which at least suggests that the United States is not looking to pull back on existing sanctions.
When Russia annexed Crimea in 2012 and deployed troops to eastern Ukraine, it violated two principles of current European security understanding: that state borders must never be changed by military force, and the promise of the Budapest Memorandum ensuring the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine in exchange for its relinquishing of nuclear weapons. In response to Tillerson’s question, U.S. taxpayers—who typically value peace, favor nonproliferation, and disapprove of cross-border aggression—should support efforts to bring an end to the crisis in Ukraine in ways that recognize Russian “actions” as illegal and facilitate democratic progress in Ukraine.
Tillerson and other members of the Trump administration must call the Russian takeover what it was: an illegal annexation. Tillerson must not let Russian officials skirt the issue of the Minsk II agreements, as Lavrov did in their joint news conference. The administration should build on areas of agreement from the Tillerson-Lavrov meeting to encourage Russian fulfillment of its Minsk II obligations, while signaling that the United States will not sell out Ukraine to gain Russian cooperation in other areas like Syria.
Through Tillerson, Trump should demonstrate to our European allies that the United States values the sovereignty of states by committing to a continued dialogue with its EU partners regarding Minsk II, including maintaining support for sanctions and helping the Ukrainian government pursue its reform agenda.
On April 9, Tillerson commented on Ukraine and the role of sanctions on ABC’s “This Week,” suggesting that “There’s been no change of the status of the situation in Ukraine or Crimea. And those sanctions will remain in place until those issues are addressed.” He reiterated this position in the meeting with Lavrov. Let us hope Tillerson understands that addressing those issues is significant for several reasons critical to the security interests of not just our allies, but U.S. taxpayers as well.
Image: U.S. Secretary Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov before their meeting on April 12 in Moscow. (U.S. Department of State)
Maggie Tennis is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the Arms Control Association, where she focuses on U.S.-Russian relations, arms control, and European security. Follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.