Onus on Russia: U.S.
Defence secretary says Washington isn’t ready to collaborate militarily with Moscow
BRUSSELS — The Trump administration signalled Thursday there will be no change soon in U.S. Russian relations, putting the onus on Moscow to prove itself if it wants closer co-operation with Washington. Russia’s support for Ukrainian separatists was underscored as a test case of its willingness to change behaviour.
At a NATO meeting in Brussels, Belgium, U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis made clear the U.S. isn’t ready to collaborate militarily with its former Cold War foe against Islamic State or other threats, a long-standing goal of the Kremlin which U.S. President Donald Trump says he wants, too. After meeting with Russia’s top diplomat in Germany, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Moscow first must help stop violence in Ukraine.
The comments appeared to put the brakes on a rapid transformation in U.S.-Russian ties, which have been badly strained by fighting in Ukraine and Syria as well as by American accusations of Russian interference in last year’s U.S. presidential election.
European countries close to Russia’s border have been especially alarmed by the prospects of U.S.-Russian rapprochement, given Trump’s references to NATO as “obsolete” and his repeated praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Russia is going to have to prove itself first,” Mattis said. Nations will seek “a way forward where Russia, living up to its commitments, will return to a partnership of sorts here with NATO,” he explained.
But he made clear that a significant attitude change is required by leaders in Moscow, declaring that there is “very little doubt that they have either interfered or they have attempted to interfere in a number of elections in the democracies.”
While Mattis addressed reporters, Tillerson met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the former West Germany capital of Bonn and U.S. Gen. Joseph Dunford, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, sat down with his Russian counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. They represented the first meetings between the two countries’ top diplomats and military men since Trump was sworn in.
Tillerson, a former Exxon Mobil CEO with long experience in Russia, having even been awarded a friendship medal by Putin, emphasized that Russia must abide by a 2015 deal aimed at ending fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists. “As we search for new common ground, we expect Russia to honour its commitments,” he said.
Lavrov said in remarks broadcast live by Russian TV that during the meeting the parties confirmed a shared interest in pooling efforts to fight terrorism. He credited Tillerson for having “voiced readiness to support” a Russian-led process to end Syria’s civil war.
“Naturally we couldn’t solve all the problems,” Lavrov said. “But we have a shared understanding that on issues where our interests coincide, and there quite a few of them, we should move forward.”
He said U.S. sanctions on Russia weren’t addressed. The matter is extremely sensitive, given Trump’s firing early this week of his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, over his discussions about sanctions with a Russian ambassador before Trump took office. The U.S. imposed penalties on Moscow after its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.
U.S. Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis, right, speaks with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during a meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on Thursday.