WASHINGTON -- Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin says U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has assured him that Washington will continue to support Kyiv in its standoff with Russia.
Klimkin made the comments outside the State Department on March 7 following a meeting with Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO who now serves as President Donald Trump's top diplomat.
The meeting came amid ongoing concerns in Ukraine and among its supporters in the West that Trump could soften the U.S. line on Russia given his stated desire to repair relations with Moscow.
His young administration, however, has so far publicly supported the continuation of sanctions imposed on Russia in response to its 2014 seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and its support for separatists in the country's east.
"[Tillerson] assured me that the United States would consistently continue to support Ukraine in its struggle against Russian aggression, that Ukraine is a key partner of the U.S. in the region, that the U.S. would also consistently support Ukraine on its path of reforms," Klimkin told reporters.
Russia rejects accusations by Kyiv, NATO, the EU, and the United States that it is backing the separatists with weapons and personnel despite substantial evidence of such support.
Trump suggested during the election campaign that he would consider lifting sanctions imposed on Russia by his predecessor, Barack Obama, in response to its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine and the Kremlin's support for separatists in the country's east.
But Tillerson and other senior U.S. administration officials have publicly voiced a tough stance since Trump's inauguration on January 20, saying that Russia must return Crimea to Ukraine and de-escalate violence in eastern Ukraine.
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the meeting.
Ukraine's Foreign Ministry said in a statement after the meeting that Tillerson told Klimkin the U.S. sanctions against Russia would remain in place until "aggression is ceased," until the Minsk peace deal to end fighting between Kyiv's forces and Russia-backed separatists is implemented, and until Moscow returns to Kyiv control of Crimea and separatist-held areas of eastern Ukraine.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner largely confirmed the ministry's characterization of the two diplomats' discussions of sanctions.
"With respect to the sanctions remaining in place until Russia complies, both with respect to eastern Ukraine, but also with respect to Crimea, that that holds true," Toner told a briefing in Washington later on March 7 in response to a question about the Ukrainian ministry's statement.
Toner added that the talks focused on "domestic issues within Ukraine" as well as "our continued concern about compliance with" the Minsk peace deal.
More than 9,750 people have been killed in the war in eastern Ukraine since April 2014, and more than 40 were killed in January and February amid a spike in hostilities in the conflict.
"They talked about reform efforts under way by the Ukrainian government, and they talked about -- and certainly Secretary Tillerson reiterated -- the U.S. strong commitment to Ukraine and our commitment to ensuring that all sides fulfill their Minsk commitments. And that includes Russia," Toner said.
Speaking several hours after his meeting with Tillerson, Klimkin told a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing that he received a strong signal from Tillerson that Ukraine would not become a bargaining chip in a push for rapprochement between Moscow and Washington.
He added that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had received similar messages in his conversations with Trump.
It was a "very strong message of support for Ukraine, and that any kind of tradeoffs are not possible," he told senators.
Ambassadors from Georgia, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland also gave testimony at the hearing.