April 21, 2017

Tillerson’s questionable question

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We’ve got to be frank: we were hoping to learn more about U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s talks in Moscow before weighing in on the strange question he posed on April 11 to European foreign affairs ministers meeting in Lucca, Italy. That meeting of the G-7 took place on the eve of his visit to Russia. The secretary asked: “Why should U.S. taxpayers be interested in Ukraine?” According to various news reports, the question caused many more questions and consternation about U.S. foreign policy. Was there change afoot in U.S. policy toward Ukraine? The U.S. State Department tried to downplay things, with spokesman R.C. Hammond saying the secretary was merely using a “rhetorical device.”

A rhetorical question or not, there’s been much reaction from members of Congress, analysts and opinion writers, all of whom gave their own answers as to why Ukraine is indeed important to the U.S. Let us begin with the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, in which the U.S., the United Kingdom and Russia gave security assurances to Kyiv in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons. Ukraine is a strategic partner of the U.S., has sent contingents of its troops in support of U.S. policies and shares the values of the U.S. Russia, on the other hand, with its invasion and annexation of Crimea and its war in eastern Ukraine, has violated international law, challenged the post-Cold War security order and threatened global stability. Moreover, Moscow continues to disrupt liberal democracies, here in North America and in Europe. According to Business Insider, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said this is how he replied to Mr. Tillerson’s question: “It is in the interests of the U.S. taxpayers to have a Europe that is secure and is strong politically and economically… You don’t want a weak Europe, broken into bits and feeble.” In short, by caring about Ukraine and supporting its pro-Western course, the U.S. is working toward global security and promoting democratization. (We refer readers also to Paul Goble’s analysis on this page.)

In Moscow on April 12, Secretary Tillerson and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov, held a joint press availability. Both men briefly mentioned Ukraine. Mr. Lavrov said: “We have also touched upon the crisis in Ukraine. We have a single common position, and that is that the 2015 Minsk agreement should be fulfilled, and we remembered how the previous administration of the U.S. had established a two-way channel of communication between Moscow and Washington. And we have also worked, of course, within the format of the Normandy arrangement, and we undertook to still continue contacts in that format in order to find practical ways forward to fulfill the Minsk agreements. We greet – applaud such efforts, and of course, we are fully in favor of them.” Mr. Tillerson was more straightforward: “On Minsk, we considered the importance of the accord. Russia can make progress in implementation by de-escalating violence and taking steps to withdraw separatist armed forces and heavy weapons so that OSCE observers can fulfill their role. Until full progress is made under the Minsk accords, the situation in Ukraine will remain an obstacle to improvement in relations between the U.S. and Russia.” Clearly, on this topic, as well as Syria, which was the main topic of discussion, there really was no “common position.”

Secretary Tillerson also met with the Russian president, but no one is revealing anything about what they discussed. However, President Donald Trump commented afterwards that U.S.-Russia relations “may be at an all-time low,” and the Associated Press reported that “his top diplomat offered a similarly grim assessment from the other side of the globe after meeting with Vladimir Putin.”

Thus, the question posed in Italy continues to be troubling. On April 9, Mr. Tillerson had said, “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,” echoing comments he’d made earlier at the NATO-Ukraine Commission in Brussels. (A crucial test will come when the Trump administration’s Treasury Department considers Exxon Mobil’s request for a waiver of sanctions against Russia in order to drill in the Black Sea in a venture with the Russian state oil company Rosneft. Readers no doubt will recall that Mr. Tillerson was chief executive at Exxon Mobil.) But what exactly the secretary of state said regarding Ukraine in talks with Messrs. Lavrov and Putin remains unknown.

The most crucial unknown, however, is Secretary Tillerson’s own answer to his “rhetorical” question.

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