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Tillerson trip tests Russia ties

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

With Russia-tinged investigations swirling around his administration, President Donald Trump has yet to fulfill a campaign pledge of closer cooperation with Moscow. A planned trip by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Russia could test if detente proves anything more than talk.

In a move alarming U.S. allies, Tillerson plans to skip a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Belgium next month, according to U.S. officials. The top American diplomat almost always attends such gatherings, and Tillerson will follow up his absence in Brussels by traveling to Russia’s capital shortly afterward.

The juxtaposition of the trips — one taken and one avoided — has reinforced concerns about America’s commitment to NATO, which Trump has repeatedly fueled by dressing down allies as deadbeats who aren’t paying enough for their own defense and who take U.S. help for granted.

Trump will take part in a meeting of NATO heads of state in Brussels on May 25, the White House announced Tuesday. Spokesman Sean Spicer said the president looks forward to discussing “issues critical to the alliance, especially allied responsibility-sharing and NATO’s role in the fight against terrorism.”

As far as the U.S-Russia relationship, Trump has yet to make any major steps as president to bring the two nations closer together.

As a candidate, Trump opened the door to potentially rolling back the sanctions imposed on Russia after its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014, a move Democrats and Republicans in Congress oppose. But as president, Trump has tamped down such suggestions as long as Russia fails to live up to its various commitments to end the fighting in Ukraine.

His administration also has resisted Russia’s calls to join forces against the Islamic State group in Syria, where the former Cold War foes have long backed opposing sides in a civil war. The Pentagon is continuing only what it calls U.S.-Russian “deconfliction” contacts, designed to ensure their forces don’t accidentally collide on Syria’s crowded battlefield and contested skies.

But Trump’s biggest roadblock to a new Russia approach may be the political realities at home.

In a remarkable public disclosure Monday, FBI Director James Comey said the bureau is investigating whether Trump campaign associates coordinated with Russian officials as Moscow sought to sway the U.S. presidential election. Several congressional committees are also investigating, ensuring the allegations of Russian meddling — and questions about Trump campaign collusion — stay in the spotlight for months to come.

Trump has denied any collaboration between his campaign and Russia. As a candidate, he spoke frequently of his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and said improving relations with the traditional U.S. adversary would be positive. He argued that Russia shared America’s goal of defeating IS extremists.

That’s about as far as the new relationship has gone.

“Tillerson will need to publicly outline what he hopes to accomplish when he visits Moscow and what is the basis for U.S. policy toward Russia,” said Heather Conley at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The prospect of Washington and Moscow teaming up, given Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine, has sent chills through much of Europe. Candidate Trump exacerbated concerns by calling NATO “obsolete” and suggesting the U.S. might not defend allies if they aren’t paying enough for their collective defense. As president, Trump has insisted the U.S. is fully committed to NATO.

Few are convinced. Western diplomats and some U.S. lawmakers expressed alarm Tuesday with Tillerson’s decision to skip the upcoming NATO meeting and travel shortly afterward to Russia. Some Europeans see the decision as a U-turn from Vice President Mike Pence’s pledges about safeguarding the alliance in Munich last month.

While other NATO countries send their foreign ministers — who include an ex-prime minister, top parliamentarians and several former defense chiefs — to Brussels, the U.S. will dispatch Tom Shannon, a career diplomat serving as the State Department’s No. 3 official. (The No. 2 slot of deputy secretary is among dozens of unfilled posts.)

“We’ll take care of the representation. This is something to be worked out, no problem,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters Tuesday.

The State Department wouldn’t provide details Tuesday about the purpose of Tillerson’s trip to Russia or whom he would meet there.

Spokesman Mark Toner said Tillerson’s schedule would not allow him to attend the NATO meeting, saying the U.S. proposed alternative dates. He didn’t elaborate, but Trump is expected to host Chinese President Xi Jinping for a highly anticipated meeting around the same time.

In any case, Tillerson is meeting with almost every NATO country’s foreign minister in Washington this week, officials said. Yet that gathering is focused on fighting the Islamic State, not on NATO’s key concern: Russia.

Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2-ranked House Democrat, said Tillerson was sending a “dangerous signal to our allies and adversaries.”

“Vladimir Putin’s Russia has not done anything to merit such engagement,” Hoyer said.


AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee and Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.


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