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Tillerson: Russia Must ‘Take The First Steps’ To Peace In Ukraine

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Sunday that relations between the U.S. and Russia will be strained as long as Moscow keeps supporting separatist forces in Ukraine and holds on to territory it has seized from its neighbor.

Following a meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Tillerson told reporters the Trump administration will keep sanctions against Russia in place until Ukraine regains the breakaway eastern provinces controlled by ethnic Russian rebels, which he called Moscow’s “proxies” in the Donbass region.

“I have been very clear in my discussions with Russian leadership, on more than one occasion, that it is necessary for Russia to take the first steps to de-escalate the situation in the eastern part of Ukraine,” Tillerson said in a joint news conference with Poroshenko.

The Obama administration hit Russia with a series of military, financial and energy-related sanctions in 2014, initially for Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula and then for its support of Russian separatists in Donbass. Contrary to concern in Washington that President Donald Trump would unilaterally lift some of the sanctions to appease Russian President Vladimir Putin, the administration has thus far held the line on existing punitive measures.

Tillerson did not mention Crimea during the Sunday press conference, but he did suggest that Russia’s annexation of the peninsula is still a major point of contention in the ongoing diplomatic talks on sanctions, reports the Washington Post.

“The U.S. and EU sanctions on Russia will remain in place until Moscow reverses the actions that triggered these particular sanctions,” the secretary of state said.

Tillerson’s support for restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity came as a welcome relief to officials in Kiev, who feared the Trump administration would look the other way on Russian intervention in order to negotiate a deal with Moscow over the crisis in Syria. Poroshenko said he was “extremely satisfied with the level of cooperation” between his government and Washington.

“In today’s visit we see a powerful signal of U.S. support in our common fight for democratic values, for freedom and democracy,” the Ukrainian president told reporters.

Sunday’s meeting followed the appointment Friday of Kurt Volker as U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, a choice that suggests to Kiev the Trump administration intends to take a firm hand with Russia in future negotiations.

Volker, a career diplomat and former ambassador to NATO, is widely seen as a Russia hawk and has called for the U.S. to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine.

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