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U.S. Says Tillerson Could Attend Rescheduled NATO Meeting


U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (file photo)

The United States has left open the possibility that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson could attend a NATO foreign ministers meeting if it was rescheduled to another date.

The announcement came less than a day after the State Department said Tillerson would skip an early April NATO gathering but would still make his first visit to Russia as part of a European trip later in the same month.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters on March 21 that Washington had offered possible dates for rescheduling the April 5-6 NATO meeting in Brussels that would fit into Tillerson's schedule.

The State Department revealed Tillerson's plan to skip the gathering of foreign ministers from the other 27 NATO countries late on March 20 but did not explain why.

A NATO official told RFE/RL following Toner's comments that the alliance was "in contact with the State Department on scheduling."

"All decisions concerning the date of a ministerial [meeting] are taken by consensus by all 28 allies," the official said.

Meanwhile, NATO has confirmed that Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will go to Washington for his first meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump on April 12.

A NATO spokeswoman said they would discuss "the importance of a strong NATO in providing collective defense and projecting stability beyond the alliances borders."

The leaders of NATO countries will then gather in Brussels on May 25 for their first summit since Trump won the U.S. presidential election in November 2016.

NATO says the agenda of the summit includes "the alliance’s role in the fight against terrorism, and the importance of increased defense spending and fairer burden-sharing."

Trump's administration has been pressing NATO allies to meet a pledge to spend 2 percent of their GDP each year on defense by 2024.

The announcement that Tillerson would miss the April 5-6 meeting in Brussels triggered criticism from the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and from two former U.S. ambassadors. It also raised concerns among alliance members about Washington's commitment to NATO by Trump's administration.

During the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, NATO members were rattled by Trump's characterization of the alliance as "obsolete" and his suggestion that the United States might not come to the aid of other NATO members in the event of an attack by Russia.

'Inviolable' Defense Guarantee

NATO has a mutual-defense guarantee that calls for a response by all members if there is an attack against one member. At his confirmation hearings in January, Tillerson called the guarantee inviolable.

However, Trump administration officials have also said members must honor military-spending pledges to ensure the United States does not "moderate" its support for the alliance.

Toner told reporters on March 21 that the United States remained "100 percent committed to NATO" and that Tillerson would have an opportunity to speak with NATO counterparts this week at a Washington meeting on combating Islamic State (IS) extremists.

Citing unnamed current and former U.S. officials, the Reuters news agency first reported that Tillerson would miss the semiannual meeting in Brussels in order to attend talks between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, which are expected on April 6-7.

Asked by reporters about the plans for the Russian trip -- including a possible meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin -- Toner declined to provide details, saying he was "not ready to make a formal announcement."

In response to questions about reports of Tillerson's trip to Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on March 21 that the ministry was "not prepared to confirm or deny this information."

"But we are certainly surprised by the regular leak of sensitive information from Washington," Zakharova said on Facebook.

The Russian news agency Interfax quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying that he "knows nothing" about Tillerson's trip.

Presidential Campaign Probe

Information about the Moscow visit comes amid an investigation by U.S. authorities over allegations of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential campaign and meetings between Russian officials and several Trump campaign officials.

Trump repeatedly expressed admiration for Russian President Putin during the U.S. presidential campaign and has said he hopes relations between the two countries, which are badly strained, will improve.

But despite initial expectations of a meeting with Putin early in Trump's presidency, no date has been set for face-to-face talks, and senior administration officials including Tillerson have taken a tough stance on Russia in public statements.

Tillerson, a former Exxon Mobil CEO who interacted with Russian officials for years in his job with the oil giant, was given a friendship medal by Putin in 2013.

He also has criticized sanctions imposed against Russia over its annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and its support for pro-Russia separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine.

A NATO official told RFE/RL that Stoltenberg was meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on March 21 and would "discuss progress in the fight against terrorism with Secretary Tillerson" and others at a meeting on March 22.

The official said that Stoltenberg "will continue his regular contacts with the U.S. administration, which has confirmed its strong commitment to NATO, both in words and in deeds."

"It's up to allies to decide at what level they are represented" at NATO ministerial meetings, the official said.

Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and former deputy secretary-general of NATO, said there was concern about Tillerson's decision to skip the meeting.

"I would say as a NATO veteran, 'a NATO junkie,' that the presence of a U.S. secretary of state, particularly at his first opportunity to join his counterparts at a ministerial [meeting], is something that shouldn't be passed up, especially when we face so many challenges," Vershbow told a Senate committee on March 21.

"But I think the more basic question is first consulting with your allies, before consulting with the Russians," Vershbow said.

With reporting by Carl Schreck, Reuters, AP, TASS, Interfax, and The Washington Post
NOTE: This article has been amended to clarify that Rex Tillerson is expected to visit Russia in April.
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